Academic journal article Independent Review

Values, Virtues, and the New American Testament

Academic journal article Independent Review

Values, Virtues, and the New American Testament

Article excerpt

A sense of social and moral malaise overhangs America amidst unprecedented economic prosperity. It is reflected in popular books lamenting the nation's "death of outrage" (Bennett 1998), its "slouching toward Gomorrah" (Bork 1996), and its tendency toward "civic disengagement" (Putnam 1995 and forthcoming). The malaise is reflected also in media stories that spotlight disaffected individuals, some the victims of grinding bureaucracy, others concerned about such woes as increasing social violence (for example, school shootings and road rage) and the fish of state's stinking from the head. Suggested prescriptions for this malaise run the gamut from the inculcation of "traditional values" to a return to prayer in public schools, the use of television's V-chip and the Internet's software equivalents, and state-brokered censorship of information and entertainment.

Every generation imagines that society is descending. Ambient malaise is the background noise of society. The translator's preface to Karl Mannheim's classic treatise on the sociology of knowledge is as apropos today as when it was written in the 1930s:

   It seems to be characteristic of our period that norms and truths which
   were once believed to be absolute, universal, and eternal, or which were
   accepted with blissful unawareness of their implications, are being
   questioned.... We are witnessing not only a general distrust of the
   validity of ideas but of the motives of those who assert them This
   situation is aggravated by a war of each against all in the intellectual
   arena where personal self-aggrandizement rather than truth has come to be
   the coveted prize. (Mannheim 1936, x-xi)

The relevant question, then, is whether today's malaise is objectively worse than yesterday's. Are appearances merely a product of heightened awareness; a consequence, perhaps, of increased media coverage and professional whining? The conjecture of this essay is that social and moral malaise has indeed become worse, and empirical work broadly confirms this prediction.

A derivative question asks whether the trends noted by Bennett, Bork, Putnam, and other scholars are the cause of the malaise (as these scholars suggest) or are merely artifacts of some other social process. The argument here is that they are artifacts; the cause lies much deeper.

The present period can be distinguished from the past by one key point: Today's prescription to remedy social and moral malaise rests, to a greater extent than ever before, on an implicit belief that every social ill can be cured painlessly and costlessly by using positive (statutory) law to fine-tune private behavior, maximize public wealth, promote fairness, and create social harmony. That this approach has proven unsuccessful so far is dismissed a priori by its proponents on grounds that positive law is fundamentally restorative; only the dosage has been wrong.

The essence of today's malaise and its prescriptive consequences are aptly characterized by a recent editorial in the Economist:

   In its determination to be fair, America has introduced law into every
   corner of life: the lone consumer can get even with the biggest
   corporation, the lone citizen can humiliate the mighty government in court.
   And yet, time and again, America is nagged by a sense that the law has made
   life less fair, not more so: the rich know the loopholes that protect their
   riches, the powerful work the rules so as to amass more power. And this
   nagging pessimism gives rise to a lament that has gained currency recently.
   Perhaps America should rely less on legal codes, and more on common-sense
   morality. Perhaps the whole attempt to make America fair and decent by
   amassing written rules of conduct needs to be rethought. (Economist, March
   8, 1997, p. 32)

Perhaps? I shall argue that the proliferation of positive law, which is deeply rooted in predatory rent-seeking (public fraud) and coercion, creates, rather than ameliorates, social and moral malaise by driving out of circulation the traditional virtues of cooperation, reciprocity, integrity, trust, and reputation--virtues that have guided civilized society for centuries and whose disappearance presently is being lamented. …

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