The Loss of Civic Virtue and its Consequences

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Harvard economic historian Niall Ferguson notes that one of the striking features of the history of past civilizations is the “speed with which most of them collapsed, regardless of cause.” The fall of the Roman Empire took only a few decades. No one foresaw the implosion of the Soviet Union. Today, it is hard to envision how the 17-nation eurozone, born in such fanfare, can muddle through in its current form.

Adam Garfinkle, editor of The American Interest, writes, “I don’t know of any great power in history that lost its foothold or decayed because of external reasons; internal social dysfunction was to blame.” Certainly that was Gibbons’ diagnosis of the fall of the Roman Empire.

I understand Garfinkle to mean that human capital is crucial. The term usually refers to the educational attainments of the population. But it means more than that. Less quantifiable, but no less crucial is the moral character of a people. Russia, for instance, cannot hope to remain a world power with alcoholism rates that have left the average fifteen-year-old Russian male with a lower life expectancy than his Cambodian counterpart.

Riots in France and England in recent years have revealed the growth of a large underclass nearly devoid of any traditional virtues. There is nothing in the lives of the members of this underclass, and particularly those of the young, to give them any dignity. Each welfare payment is experienced as a wound, even as the recipients take those payments as their due for the humiliation thrust upon them by the state.

Theodore Dalrymple, who worked for more than a decade as a prison psychiatrist in England, is the leading chronicler of this underclass of people, characterized by their incapability of accepting any responsibility for their lives, for whom life is something that just happens to them and about which they can make no decisions.

He describes the “cities of darkness” that encircle Paris, housing “a population that derives the meaning of its life from the hatred it bears for the other ‘official’ society in France. This alienation . . . is written on the faces of the young men, most of them permanently unemployed, who hang out in the pocked and potholed open spaces between their dwellings. When you approach them to speak to them, their immobile faces betray not a flicker of recognition of your shared humanity . . . .”

Six hundred thousand Britons have reached the age of 26 never having worked a day; 17% of British youth are neither in school, nor working, nor in training programs. They have never tasted a morsel of food or worn a garment paid for by money earned. But far from breeding gratitude, welfare has only left them with a sense of entitlement to more, as reflected in last summer’s riots.

These developments have hardly left the rest of society unscathed. Between 1959 and 2002, the French crime rate increased nearly sevenfold; from 1993 to 2000 cases of arson increased 25 times.

NOW COMES CHARLES MURRAY, in his new book Coming Apart, to warn that a similar permanent underclass is taking shape in the United States. He attributes the process to the erosion of the “founding virtues” of the American republic: industriousness, honesty, marriage, and religion. Murray creates two fictional communities, Belmont and Fishtown — the former home to the top 20% of the population in income and education; the latter home to a “new lower class.” (Murray’s work, incidentally, is explicitly about class, not race; it is a study of “the state of white America.”)

The sharpest contrasts are in the area of family. Over half the children born to women under thirty in America today are born to single mothers. The illegitimacy rate for black children is over 70%. In (white) Fishtown, illegitimacy rates are around 45%. Only about 30% of children in Fishtown live with both biological parents, as opposed to 90% in Belmont. Under half of those 30-49 in Fishtown are currently married, and 30% are divorced, as compared to 84% married in Belmont and 10% divorced.

Born to single mothers and raised in single-parent homes, many of Fishtown’s children begin life so far behind that nothing within the power of a non-totalitarian state, unwilling to claim each child born at birth, can possibly compensate. Decades of government Head Start programs have shown little impact. By four it’s already too late. As Walter Russell Mead puts it, “All the social workers in the world can’t [provide] a nine-year-old child who has never seen a healthy family . . . with the kind of psychological balance and strength children get from growing up in a loving a stable family.”

The results are just what one would expect. Industriousness is also way down in Fishtown. The percentage of white male workers receiving disability insurance has quintupled since 1960, the percentage of those outside the labor force has tripled, and the percentage of those working less than full-time has doubled. Most of that leisure time is spent sleeping and watching television, at best, and criminal mischief, at worst. The percentage of Fisthtown men in prison quadrupled from 1974 to the mid-90’s, when crime rates began to drop, and remains significantly higher than in 1970. A vicious cycle has set in for Fishtown’s young males: They are adjudged too irresponsible to be marriage material by Fishtown’s young women (though that does not prevent them from fathering children), which makes them less responsible, which, in turn, makes them less suitable marriage material.

In comparison to Fishtown, Belmont does very well on the four “founding virtues” – families are stable, illegitimacy rates low, religious affiliation has declined, but remains 50% higher than in Fishtown, and crime rates have remained the same. It is only in comparison to other countries that matters are not so rosy. While Americans still work longer hours and more weeks per year than Europeans, South Koreans work 40% more hours per week than Americans, and their children attend school 22% more days per year. On American campuses, Ferguson attests, it is the Asian and Asian-American students who drive themselves.

IN HIS MOST RECENT in a series of powerful essays on the death of the blue societal model, Walter Russell Mead discusses the transformation from 19th C. America, in which people defined themselves by what they produced, to today’s America, in which we young people develop their identities through consumption and leisure activities alone. Couch potato Homer Simpson as Nietzche’s Last Man.

Young children on the family farm had important responsibilities from an early age, and those responsibilities increased rapidly as they grew older. Farm kids understood the connection between work and consumption. They knew how much work went into the shoes they bought, and they planned the planting for the next year together with their parents. By contrast, today’s youth spend their first “quarter century as critics of a life they know very little about,” unspoiled as they are by much serious exposure to the world of work. The provision in Obamacare allowing children to remain on their parents’ insurance until 26 symbolizes the indefinite prolongation of adolescence.

America’s young are not only consumers of things but of one another. By severing the connection between intimacy and commitment, easily available contraceptives have set a pattern of far more shallow relationships between the sexes, and allowed young men to evade the responsibilities of married life indefinitely.

The decline of America’s human capital is, of course, not just one of moral degeneration in isolation of economic and social factors. Mechanized agriculture rendered family farms no longer viable. Jobs in which a strong back and willingness to work hard were as important as a high IQ have become ever fewer. (Development of America’s oil and gas resources is almost as important for the manly jobs it promises as for the revenues generated and greater energy independence offered.)

Increasing government regulation has made employers wary of hiring new workers, as happened in Western Europe, and thus reduced the entry level jobs where young men can learn the necessary habits of the workplace. Progressive regulation to make cities quieter and more aesthetic led to a flight of manufacturing jobs from inner cities, where they are most desperately needed.

Government intervention has exacerbated the loss of American virtue. The greater the number of Great Society programs and expansion of benefits, the more rapid the decline of poorer neighborhoods into dystopias. Thirty years ago, the blue social model of growing social insurance and welfare payments seemed to Mead superior to anything that could be imagined. Today, he rejoices at its literal bankruptcy because of the toll on the quality of the citizenry.

MY PESSIMISTIC REFLECTIONS on the decline of my native land make me bullish on Israel. Living surrounded by enemies and with hundreds of thousands of missiles pointed in our direction has a way of introducing a certain reality factor to life that no amount of imported Western hedonism can completely erase. Compulsory military service matures young Israelis in a manner that has no parallel in the rest of the developed world.

Israeli women (even the non-religious) have the highest birthrates in the Western world. They can still think beyond the framework of their own lifespan, and contemplate future generations without their presence. When polled most Israelis give more importance to their Jewish identity than their Israeli identity. Rather than reflecting a lack of patriotism, that suggests a deeper patriotism, for it means they still view their nation as part of a 3,000-year-old world historical mission.

This article first appeared in the Jerusalem Post.

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9 Responses

  1. cohen y says:

    ‘Adam Garfinkle, editor of The American Interest, writes, “I don’t know of any great power in history that lost its foothold or decayed because of external reasons; internal social dysfunction was to blame.” Certainly that was Gibbons’ diagnosis of the fall of the Roman Empire.

    I understand Garfinkle to mean that human capital is crucial. The term usually refers to the educational attainments of the population. But it means more than that. Less quantifiable, but no less crucial is the moral character of a people’

    Goodness.
    The post and the commenters seem to concentrate on work and money.

  2. dovid2 says:

    Shaya: “civil vitality is not just about working hard. It’s also about strengthening civil society by creating numerous civic organizations …”

    Historically, there has been a tight correlation between working hard and civic ethic. The “civic ethic was once strong in the United States” that you mentioned was evident when people in the US still worked hard. There was no food stamps, medicare, etc.

  3. Liora says:

    “The provision in Obamacare allowing children to remain on their parents’ insurance until 26 symbolizes the indefinite prolongation of adolescence.”

    …Or maybe it is a compassionate and realistic way to address the fact that the many recent college graduates who have tried and been unable to find full-time work with medical benefits in this terrible job market still need health insurance. Those in Israel who benefit from equal access to healthcare should not be so quick to deny that same protection to American citizens with no such safety net.

  4. Allan Katz says:

    ‘ We frequently pay so much attention to character, personality, and individual responsibility that we overlook how profoundly the social environment affects what we do and who we are.

    Specifically, we’re apt to assume that people who commit crimes are morally deficient, that the have-nots in our midst are lazy (or at least insufficiently resourceful), that children who fail to learn simply aren’t studying hard enough (or have unqualified teachers). In other words, we treat each instance of illegality, poverty, or academic difficulty as if it had never happened before and as if the individual in question was acting out of sheer perversity or incompetence.’ Alfie Kohn

    The fraud scandals and other financial crimes, evading army service , bullying ( beit shemesh) have got more to do with the ‘ system ‘ than individual character

  5. Bob Miller says:

    Powerful elements in many American minority communities (and not only the poor ones!) disdain any sign of civic virtue as a surrender to the white oppressor’s values. In such surroundings, growing up to become a responsible, constructive citizen becomes very difficult. Even staying alive becomes difficult. The escalating percentage of out-of-wedlock births among non-minorities shows how the societal breakdown has now expanded beyond the ghetto.

  6. shaya says:

    It’s very interesting to see you draw on sociological research (though Murray is not considered credible by many because of his controversial views on race). One comment:

    I’m surprised to see the suggestion that the longer working hours, the better. This is contrary to both empirical results and the Torah. In Avot 2:2 and elsewhere Chazal clearly indicate that one should work part-time, or keep work to a minimum, and spend as much time as possible on Torah study and other religious pursuits. In our high-technology society there is no rational reason why people need to spend 50-60 hours a week working to make ends meet, yet that is the case in America, making the masses tired and miserable (and too numb and exhausted for in-depth religious or spiritual involvement). Only some European countries suffer from joblessness — others high high employment, lower hours, and high quality of living. The task of Israel should be to create a civilization in which one can easily work part-time in any profession, making it possible to be a true Torah scholar or tzaddik (or give birth and raise a large family) while also being a physician or engineer making important practical impacts on society (as many great rabbis throughout the ages, such as Rambam, Rambam and Ramchal, did in their day).

    Beyond this, though, civil vitality is not just about working hard. It’s also about strengthening civil society by creating numerous civic organizations applying reason and values to all areas of life. When people work less, but have a strong commitment to their community and trust their fellow citizens, they can combine to combat all manner of social problems. This civic ethic was once strong in the United States. It may be relatively strong in Israel, but traditional religious communities–in particular the most conservative and inward-looking–could benefit from a greater appreciation for the benefits of civic participation in organizations trying to improve some aspect of the country, their community, or the environment or animals.

  7. Miriam A says:

    “They have never tasted a morsel of food or worn a garment paid for by money earned. But far from breeding gratitude, welfare has only left them with a sense of entitlement to more…”

    I would be curious to hear Rabbi Rosenblum’s thoughts on how this relates to the welfare state in Eretz Yisrael

  8. Shimon L. says:

    I made aliyah for purely religious reasons, but I did also recognise the relatively more healthy society in Israel as compared to the UK and saw it as a major side-benefit. After learning in kollel for a year I started working in Tel Aviv. I can tell you that even the typical Tel-Avivian chilonim I now work with really do seem to have a value system far more advanced than the supposedly ‘cultured and progressive’ non-Jews I used to work alongside in London, who have nothing more in their lives than their career and the next pint of beer (the sole purpose of the one, presumably, to pay for the other.)
    Obviously the chilonim in Tel Aviv still have a way to go to get to the real emes. But thinking beyond the next drink, actually recognising that there is such a thing as ‘values’, and generally being much more ‘menschlich’, is certainly a positive indicator.

    I also get the general sense, as Jonathan alludes to, that while the real committed secularlists in the media et al try their hardest to import as much Western narishkeit as they can to show that they’re ‘like everyone else’, the masses still don’t take these things as seriously as the ‘liberal elite’ would like. Compare, for example, attendances at sporting events in Israel to those in the Western world. They know there are more important things in life.

    The question is whether all this is down to compulsory military service, or if it’s simply the inner Jewish neshomo in all of them that searches for truth even if they try to deny it.

  9. Shanks says:

    Well, as usual, I disagree with Jonathan Rosenblum’s piece. But I see that today, there are some important things we surprisingly agree on. It is important for Israel that military service be compulsory in order to mature young people out of thinking that they’re entitled to the government giving them money, even though they’re not contributing to the wider society and not holding down jobs.