AS I read David Bosworth's splendid language, his extraordinarily balanced phrases and keen satirical wit, his lively use of striking examples coupled with enduring issues, I found that I started to ask myself, Do I know anybody like the people he describes? Do I know people who deny death, flatter the "inner child," whose lives "are now stocked with the jingles of commerce," and whose humane responsibilities are "increasingly purchased rather than performed"? Surely I should, since I was raised in California and now live--God forbid--in Malibu.
But I don't. They are not my children, nor their friends, nor my friends, nor my sister, nor any of our cousins. Some of these people are religious, some are not, but all behave like adults. They are not caught up in the merciless, soul-shattering experience of being both a "Producing Self" and a "Consuming Self." They work hard, but they come home to a quiet family. They buy what they need and indulge in some of the newer technological innovations, but they are not obsessed by a desire to own. They smile at the phrase, sometimes seen on bumper stickers, that he who dies with the most toys wins, but they don't believe it. They think--as I do--that a person wins who dies having left behind decent children, a reputation for honesty, and some accomplishment that may benefit others.
Perhaps I live in a unique and vanishing world. I am getting along in years; my mind was shaped by the Second World War; I am not much attracted to fashion, But then neither are my relatives or friends, and many of them are much younger than I.
I SUSPECT that what's wrong is Bosworth's tendency to see glimpses of an assumed world and then think that he has seen the whole of it, and thus that the world is entirely as he has imagined it to be. Much of what Bosworth describes ists--parents obsessed with "quality time" and relentlessly catering to their children's every illusory "need," government officials who are the captives of "special interests," schoolrooms that are "duchies of the postindustrial economy," young people fascinated by the language of rap artists who are faking their rebelliousness because that seems to sell. But to make an argument about an entire culture, and about its economic roots and moral tendencies, requires the one thing that is left out of Bosworth's rhetorical flourishes: facts.
I had long thought that the purpose of this magazine was to subject high-flown rhetoric to critical analysis by asking whether the claims were generally true, whether the effects that are lamented were produced by the causes suggested, and what practical alternatives existed that might reduce the harms without creating worse ones of their own. Apparently my assumption has outlived reality.
Let me take one example. With Bosworth, I am deeply worried about the effects on children of having two working parents. I prefer children to be raised by a parent--of necessity, almost always the mother--who stays home. I fear that children raised by professional childrearers will suffer. But are my fears--and Bosworth's--correct? I have looked hard at the studies that have been done about this and can find hardly any that show my worries to be well-founded. Maybe the studies were badly done (though there are many, by many different authors). Maybe they did not ask the right questions. Maybe they were inattentive to the subtle, but important, aspects of human personality. Or maybe I am wrong, and so is Bosworth. Until I know the facts, I will be cautious in my comments.
Caution is not a word that can be applied to Bosworth. He is in high dudgeon, and like all true believers he knows what is true without bothering to ask if it is true. At one point he laments the absence of the "true humility [that] is the source of the most profound sort of pragmatism," a phrase that would have more power if anywhere in his essay he displayed even a trace of humility.
But let us suppose that the defective world in which he believes the middle class now lives is in fact as bad as he thinks it is. What has caused this deplorable state of affairs? To him, it is "our capitalist economy" that produces professors trying to freeze their brains, MIT scientists desiring to achieve immortality, schoolrooms that are the prisoners of advertising, and people who are selfish "Avid Consumers." Art, academia, and religion have, according to him, been corrupted by commerce. This has all happened, he suggests, because capitalism "is necessarily anti-establishment" and so produces disruption and dissatisfaction.
BOSWORTH appears to be a right-wing Marxist, believing that the economy is the dominant social force in society but arguing that this force is chiefly harming the middle class. Hardly anywhere in his essay do we read about crime, drug abuse, single-parent families, or low-wage workers. Instead, we read about true human needs--the needs of the serious bourgeoisie--that have been tainted by the relentless rational materialism of capitalist production. One is reminded of Marx's early writings in which he said that man should hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, and discuss literature after dinner. For neither today's Bosworth nor a younger Marx should there be any Avid Consumers. (Perhaps the early Marx was also a right-wing Marxist.)
More accurately, I think, we can find in Bosworth the modern-day echoes of John Ruksin, who in 1862 wrote that a "real science of political economy" is one that would teach nations "to desire and labour for things that lead to life" and to "scorn and destroy the things that lead to destruction." By contrast, any political economy that is "founded on self-interest" is one that would bring "ruin into the Economy of Heaven." There is, said Ruskin, "no wealth but life," and national richness consists in nourishing the "greatest number of noble and happy human beings."
The economy has certainly made more likely certain kinds of lamentable behavior; after all, without material abundance it is hard to misuse any abundance. One cannot sell Gangsta Rap until the radio is invented, and one cannot abuse television until nearly every home has one.
But what has the economy done save put in place things that can be used for bad, as well as good, purposes? When Ruskin wrote in the middle of the nineteenth century, it would have been a bit difficult to make the average man into someone who is "noble and happy," because most people lacked an education, a chance to buy decent clothing, and the time in which they could perform any noble deeds. A member of the British elite lived 17 years longer than the average man.
THE problem that our modern life reveals is not that affluence corrupts but that human nature is corruptible. Give people freedom and prosperity, and they will do both wise and foolish things, and these things in greater abundance than when they were poor and over-worked. People are both self-interested and altruistic, self-regarding and other-regarding, playboys and homebodies, devoted to amusement as much as to education. On balance, I think the other-regarding features of human nature outweigh the self-regarding ones. Were that not the case, women would not have children, men would not marry the mothers of their children, voting would not occur, and philanthropy would be extinct except when it could be done for public adulation. People are disposed to sociability and hence to morality, though it is only a disposition and not a rule. But my belief is quite different from Bosworth's: He asserts, without explaining, that "the totality of domestic life is being shaped by economic models." Oh? If so, why do wo men have children? There is no economic gain to them and much pain in the process.
It is not the economy but the culture that produces some of the problems that upset Bosworth and many other people. Capitalism can exist with a great variety of social systems. Victorian England was capitalist, so also was America of both the 1940s and the 1990s, and so as well are Japan and Singapore, Sweden and Taiwan. But all have very different cultures. Some emancipate people from public restraint, others subordinate people to it. Some value self-expression, others self-control.
Material abundance allows people to do both good and bad things. If one wanted to reduce the bad things, there are only two alternatives--repressive government or general poverty. (In fact, only one thing: By and large, repressive governments go hand in hand with general poverty.) Nowhere does Bosworth speak of how to reduce what he dislikes about our culture, save for some remarks about the Judeo-Christian ethic. But America is already the most religious of any industrialized nation, a fact for which I am most grateful. Grateful or not, it is far from clear just how a deeper ethical life would keep mothers at home, eliminate professional child care, or cut back on suburban cul-de-sacs, or why Japan preserves many customary formalities despite having next to nothing in the way of a religion.
But I will go--and in the pages of this magazine  have gone--much further. Capitalism is not simply an amoral, much less an immoral, tool for material satisfaction. Capitalism depends upon and enhances moral qualities by stimulating deferred gratification, encouraging risk-taking, and rewarding the customary decencies in buyer-seller transactions. Capitalism contributes to self-discipline by encouraging trust, civility, and fairness at the same time that it heightens self-indulgence by awakening our senses and sharpening our appetites. In so doing, of course, it has made it easier for some of us--but far from most or all of us--to engage in the kind of luxurious depravity against which Adam Smith so cogently warned us.
An immoral economy is a planned one, since it is based on the false assumption that one person can plan another's well being. Such an assumption will inevitably lead to profound errors that are then protected by autocratic government. An amoral economy is a primitive barter, where a good price goes to your family or a close friend and a high price to a stranger with little, if anything, spent on technological progress. A good economy is ours, though its goodness is limited because people are limited. If people are left alone--which is what capitalism largely does--they will do many things, most good and some bad. The bad is the price of the good.
JAMES Q. WILSON is Reagan professor of public policy at Pepperdine University and author of, among other books, The Moral Sense.
(1.) "Capitalism and Morality," The Public Interest, Number 121, Fall, 1995.…