While attending a recent conference, I was asked at dinner by a fellow participant, "How are things going?" - a reference, it was quickly explained, not to the state of my personal welfare but to the main topic of the gathering, which was the general state of the nation and the world. "Are things getting better or worse?"
"On balance, worse," said I with hardly a moment’s hesitation, to which he responded: "I would have said just the opposite." My dinner companion cited a string of reasons for his optimism, virtually all of them related to business and finance: the soaring stock market, the taming of inflation, low interest rates, a friendly political climate for business, the triumph of global capitalism in the wake of the Cold War, talk in Washington of reducing the size of government.
The view expressed by my companion is not uncommon, particularly among those who see the world primarily in economic terms. An article published by a Washington policy institute, entitled "The State of Humanity: Steadily Improving," declares: "Almost every absolute change, and the absolute component of almost every economic and social change or trend, points in a positive direction, as long as we view the matter over a reasonably long period of time. That is, all aspects of material human welfare are improving in the aggregate."
The author of this piece, a well respected academic, supports his thesis with a variety of data, including a worldwide increase in life expectancy since the 1950s, greater availability of raw materials, growing food supplies, a cleaner physical environment, and a declining proportion of the population working in agriculture which "has enabled consumption per person to multiply by a factor of 20 or 40." Together, he writes, these "data show unmistakably how the standard of living has increased in the world and in the United States through the recent centuries and decades, right up through the 1980s."
By and large I do not question this author’s data. My disagreement - and the source of my greater apprehension about the near-term future - stems not so much from the economic evidence posited but from other evidence, both economic and spiritual/ethical, that frequently is overlooked when people think in narrowly economic terms.
The "state of humanity steadily improving"? Our "standard of living" at an all-time high? Surely, that depends upon how these terms are defined. In he 1940s, when young women flocked from homes in rural areas into cities like Washington and New York to help with the war effort, they were free for the most part to walk the streets, even late at night, in relative safety. Today, wide swaths of America’s cities - and increasingly its suburbs and rural hamlets as well - are no-man’s lands, where outsiders dare not enter and where residents cower behind locked doors. Dr. Peter Beilenson, the Baltimore health commissioner, estimates that in that city alone there are 55,000 drug addicts, nearly one-tenth of the entire population. The experience of other American cities is similar. With legions of addicts supporting costly habits by preying on the citizenry, personal security, a fundamental right once taken for granted, is increasingly scarce.
The erosion of personal safety did not occur in a vacuum, but was interwoven with other deleterious trends, not least the depreciation of home and family life. In the 1950s one American breadwinner, usually the husband and father, normally was able to support a family financially. Today - thanks in part to proliferating taxes that bite ever more deeply into Americans’ earnings - many families have both mother and father in the workplace and still barely can pay routine and necessary bills, much less make provision for future responsibilities. In other cases, not financial necessity but waxing materialism has provided the impetus for the prominence of the two-earner family. Either way, the effects are costly, as parents have inadequate time for their children or themselves. As the great philosophers knew, leisure is indispensable to the good life - for reasons that transcend mere physical and mental relaxation.
The displacement of women’s historic role has damaged not only the family but society-at-large. When wives typically were at home, their activities were not confined to servile labor. While husbands were earning a paycheck, wives had the opportunity, among other activities, to visit in one another’s homes and to do the collective work of those intermediate institutions that bridge the gap between the isolated individual and the state. In great measure it was through the groundwork thus laid by women that men were integrated into the community that lies beyond the home and formal place of business.
The losses stemming from the reduction of women’s central civilizing role may not be reflected in official standard-of-living statistics, but that does not make those losses less profound. Today - when life for many men and women and children consists of little more than work or school, commuting, and a meal or two on the run, with weekends devoted to necessary catch-up on housework and shopping - many Americans do not even know the names of their neighbors. And mark this: When neighbors do not know one another, in the deepest sense there are no neighbors.
From the depreciation of family and neighborly relations there follows, as Burke warned, the dissipation of all those qualities which raise life above mere survival and infuse it with elegance, dignity, and high purpose. This is not surprising, since a love for ends that transcend narrow selfishness is learned, first of all, in the family and the neighborhood. The destruction of what Burke called "the unbought grace of life" may not be incorporated in the positivists’ quantitative models, but it can be seen - and heard - in the real world every day. In our routine lives we both perpetrate and suffer a coarseness of dress, speech, and manners that would have shocked our parents’ or grandparents’ generations. In our cultural lives we celebrate banality and worship celebrity. In our political lives we blithely obey and sustain with our taxes a government that violates its constitutional charter with impunity.
The bulls may be jostling each other on Wall Street, but, as the renowned economist Wilhelm Röpke, architect of the post-World War II German "economic miracle," emphasized in his 1958 book A Humane Economy: The Social Framework of the Free Market, "Individuals who compete on the market and there pursue their own advantage stand all the more in need of the social and moral bonds of community, without which competition degenerates most grievously. . . . the market economy . . . must find its place in a higher order of things . . . . It must be firmly contained within an all-embracing order of society in which the imperfections and harshness of economic freedom are corrected by law and in which man is not denied conditions of life appropriate to his nature. Man can wholly fulfill his nature only by freely becoming part of a community and having a sense of solidarity with it. Otherwise he leads a miserable existence and he knows it. "
The economy may be in good shape for the moment, but American society is sinking into the mire. The important question is how to arrest society’s slide and, indeed, to set it once again on the ascendant path. The answer is to be found in the "all-embracing order" mentioned by Röpke. That order is based on restraint, but restraint from what source? Because men and women are torn between higher and lower inclinations, we cannot always depend on people to do what is right or moral simply because it is right or moral. That is why all societies establish external rewards and penalties - laws, rules, incentives, disincentives - that encourage proper behavior and discourage its opposite even when men and women are not acting out of the highest motives. But external rewards and restraints - the promise of advancement and threat of punishment, which appeal to men’s narrow self-interest, however enlightened - cannot alone sustain the good society.
There also must be present to some degree another form of restraint that comes from within the individual and whose source is morality itself - the higher will, or conscience, which seeks what is good for its own sake because to do less would result in a loss of meaning and worth. Although this authority is felt strongly within, it is what connects the individual to a higher reality.
Real morality is not easy. It takes constant effort, and its main object is improvement of the inner man or woman. What is important to the man of character, writes Irving Babbitt (1861-1933), "is not his power to act on the world, but his power to act on himself." This idea, typical of classical Greek and Roman civilization and of medieval Christendom, has been under assault in the modern world. Though traditional conceptions of virtue have not been entirely driven from the field, morality and ethics have become identified increasingly with progressive humanitarianism, whose main professed concern* is easing the collective lot of mankind.
Babbitt identified two strains of humanitarianism. One, which he termed Rousseauism after Jean-Jacques Rousseau, holds that men and women naturally have sentimental feelings toward others so that if individuals give free vent to their natural impulses the world will be a better place. If corruption is evident, according to this view, the fault - and the need for change - must lie not in the conduct of individual men and women but in social and political institutions. The second strain of humanitarianism, which Babbitt called Baconianism after Francis Bacon, sees economics, science, and technology as the keys to a better future for all.
It may seem at first glance that no two kinds of individual could be further apart than the "bleeding-heart" Rousseauist and the "hard-headed" Baconian. Yet on the most essential point - the placing of the primary locus of moral struggle outside the individual - the two are as one, and it is not uncommon to see tendencies characteristic of each type coexisting in the same persons. For purposes of concrete illustration the current occupants of the White House spring readily to mind. Both the President and the First Lady pride themselves on their sympathetic feelings for the underdog. Bill Clinton became famous early for the phrase "I feel your pain." By identifying his own cause with that of "the little guy" and his opponents with the interests of the undeserving rich, Clinton dealt the Republicans a thrashing in the fall 1995 budget showdown from which they have yet to recover. Mrs. Clinton likes to champion groups commonly viewed as "oppressed," among them the world’s women and children, and she frequently speaks of her interest in things "spiritual." She has endorsed what the socialist editor of Tikkun has called "a politics of meaning." Yet, sentimentalists that they are, the First Couple also view themselves as sharp-minded technocrats, fully equal to the task, if only Congress would have let them, of federalizing the nation’s health-care system.
When the President was asked at a recent news conference about one of the scandals with which his administration has been associated, he responded, good humanitarian that he is, that the morality that counts could be found in his policies, not his personal character. Public opinion seems to side with the President. His approval ratings stand near record highs despite widespread allegations of wrongdoing. This should come as no surprise, given the growing displacement of the morality of personal restraint by various forms of pseudo-ethics that appeal to Americans on both ends of the political spectrum.
The eclipse of inward morality is deadly. On the one side, it invites political tyranny. As Burke warned two centuries ago, "Society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without." On the other side, the depreciation of personal integrity undermines respect for law, tradition, manners, taste, and general decency, bringing corruption, litigiousness, and incipient anarchy in its train. America is feeling the effects of both tendencies as ways of life long respected are now persecuted, behavior previously scorned is now glorified, and our government, for corruption and intrusiveness, increasingly resembles a cross between a banana republic and the Brezhnev-era Soviet Union.
"Are things getting better or worse?" Let’s just say that there is a lot of work to be done.