When Mitt Romney said that Israel’s economic success was rooted in its culture, he was pilloried. Yet how is it that the Israelis have developed high-tech industries and a high standard of living, while many of the Arab countries awash in oil have failed to achieve either? Culture, politics, and economics are intertwined. To ignore it is to ignore reality.
How much does culture explain America’s current economic malaise? The current debate concentrates on economics. Conservatives support reduced government spending, repeal of onerous financial regulations, entitlement reform, and a simplified tax code with reduced rates and few loopholes. Liberals want more government spending, higher tax rates on the wealthy and tighter regulations on business and finance. I am strongly sympathetic to the conservative prescription. Yet, I wonder, will that be enough to bring back the vibrancy of the American economy? Can a culture that emphasizes instant gratification and glamorizes the anything-goes behavior avoid being neck-deep in personal and governmental debt? A productive society must have a culture that encourages self-restraint, self-reliance, and delayed gratification. Without such a culture can any tax and spending policy make much of a difference?
The early Americans, as Tocqueville observed, relied upon themselves and their neighbors. In the rough and tumble world of the early 19th century, the American pioneers built communities and established volunteer associations (fire departments, religious societies, charitable organizations, and schools). People developed habits of individual responsibility, self-restraint, and social cooperation. Several decades after the American Revolution, America had the beginnings of a functioning democracy and self-governing society. By contrast, the French Revolution produced terror and Napoleon. Paris continued to rule France; whereas Washington was a far-off distant place with little connection to ordinary Americans. Americans learned to rule themselves which meant curbs on their appetite for pleasure, self-aggrandizement, and instant gratification. Families sacrificed for their children. Authority in the home, the schools and the religious institutions demanded and received respect. People understood that Jefferson’s pursuit of happiness meant more than the pursuit of pleasure.
This continued into the early and mid-20th century. There were social taboos against sexual promiscuity and public displays of vulgarity. The motion picture and broadcasters codes were designed to maintain public standards of dignity and decency and, perhaps more important, to protect the innocence of children. The film code forbids the ridicule of members of the clergy. The public understood and supported the imperative of these codes. Vulgar and coarse language did not appear in newspapers and magazines and was not accepted in public forums. Private communication was one thing; public communication another. People sensed that speaking in public, as you may with abandon in private to friends, debased the speaker and polluted the public forum. Eventually this began to erode. Compare the humor of Jack Benny, George Burns, Bob Hope and Red Skelton in the mid-20th century with the humor of today’s so-called humorists – Bill Maher, Jon Stewart, and Sarah Silverman. The later cannot get through a routine without larding it with sexual innuendos and broad vulgarities. The former got through a lifetime of humor without any of it. Could films that extolled family sacrifice such as How Green Was My Valley or celebrated patriotism and unspoken heroism such as The Best Years of Our Lives be made today? Can Hollywood make an innocent romantic comedy? In today’s version the couple has sexual relations as soon as they meet. A generation that knew war and economic depression, wrote and danced to love songs, while the next generation raised in unmatched prosperity wrote songs drenched in anger. How come?
Those of us fortunate to have known the World War II generation as teachers and colleagues knew they were different from the people that followed. The older generation knew sacrifice and hard times. Students were not praised for mediocre work or for simply being there. They were expected to learn from the great traditions of Western Civilization. There were no apologies about this and no guilt over a curriculum being Eurocentric. You were prepared with a set of principles and a body of knowledge for facing the world head-on. You were schooled in norms of behavior whose values were unquestioned. Parents reinforced the authority of those teachers. There were social costs for having broken the law and having children out of wedlock. Presidents of that era would have slunk out of office in shame, if they had been publicly exposed engaging in Bill Clinton’s reckless sexual behavior.
Does all this matter? Charles Murray in his book Coming Apart explains how social pathologies are infecting lower income whites. Over the last several decades divorce, crime, school drop-outs, single parent families have increased markedly in those communities. The religious institutions, strong families and schools that once guided young people from low-income families to a better life exercise only shadow of their authority. Is it possible today that many young people know more sexual partners than good books or have more tattoos than marketable skills? As behavior deteriorates, language gets inflated. The Grand Canyon is awesome; your daughter’s college boyfriend is not.
Murray argues that the upper middle class has avoided the pathologies of lower income people – their families are stronger, their education performance higher, and the life trajectory more promising. He has no five-point solution to the problem, only to worry that the fortunate among us do not publicly and vigorously champion the virtues that allow them to have better lives. They are non-judgmental about individual morality and social norms, although their private lives affirm their judgment. Such people know instinctively that, if their lives are going to be productive, they must complete their education, avoid gangs and drug abuse, and not have children out-of-wedlock. Yet on social values for the rest of society, their voices are muted. This is not the case of the Hollywood and the television networks. They seem to think that violence, vulgarity and sexual promiscuity are simply fun and games. Tragically, it is not.