`Me-First' Individualism Corrupts Civic Virtue

Article excerpt

It is encouraging to see the favorable response to William Bennett's call for a return to virtue - to justice, responsibility, common decency and community service. The notion, however, that only in the last 20 years has the me-first attitude prevailed is wildly shortsighted. Two hundred, even 400 years is more like it.

The harsh effects of a modern European economy based on greed drove the ancestors of most of the white American population to emigrate. Commercial agriculture and capitalistic industry dispossessed many family farmers and handicraft artisans and threatened others with reduction to propertyless wage laborers. The new continent gave them hope that old-fashioned community and responsible liberty could be maintained here.

It was not long before the same modern opportunities for me-first individualism appeared here, too. Land speculators, overseas merchants and tobacco and rice planters enriched themselves at the expense of tenant farmers, shopkeepers and African slaves.

The American Revolution at first seemed to offer a chance to revive the old virtues of liberty within community. The Constitution, indeed, established a government based on Aristotelian precepts of the sort that Bennett now seeks to restore. A balance of governmental powers, not an absence of government, would, it was hoped, restrain corruption and uphold civic virtue.

That hope persisted in spite of the extension of commercial agriculture and industry. By the 1820s, however, the classic virtues were melting away. Nineteenth-century educators tried to instill them in the young, especially in the boys. Once the boys were out in the world of men, of course, they were tempted to trade old-fashioned virtue for go-getting "business character."

What the 19th century called "liberalism" - now "conservatism" - argued that free competition among all those self-seeking entrepreneurs would turn their greed into public benefits. The new economy produced enormous wealth but left only a vague memory of the old communal virtues. Gradually the courts accepted the theory that commercial and industrial property was no different from the family farm or workshop and that the Constitution sanctioned the new private entrepreneurship, not a government responsible for the general welfare. By the end of the century, the realization began to sink in that great riches for some and poverty for many were dispossessing middle-class and working-class people of liberty.

In response, the 20th century saw first the Progressive and then the New Deal, Fair Deal and Great Society attempts to find modern equivalents for the old liberty within community - hence the new meaning of "liberalism. …