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Some Things Said… (September 09)

Disintegration

“The genius of America in the early nineteenth century, Tocqueville thought, was that it pursued ‘productive industry’ without a descent into lethal materialism. Behind America’s balancing act, the pioneering French social thinker noted, lay a common set of civic virtues that celebrated not merely hard work but also thrift, integrity, self-reliance, and modesty–virtues that grew out of the pervasiveness of religion, which Tocqueville called ‘the first of [America’s] political institutions, . . . imparting morality’ to American democracy and free markets. Some 75 years later, sociologist Max Weber dubbed the qualities that Tocqueville observed the ‘Protestant ethic’ and considered them the cornerstone of successful capitalism. Like Tocqueville, Weber saw that ethic most fully realized in America, where it pervaded the society. Preached by luminaries like Benjamin Franklin, taught in public schools, embodied in popular novels, repeated in self-improvement books, and transmitted to immigrants, that ethic under girded and promoted America’s economic success.

What would Tocqueville or Weber think of America today? In place of thrift, they would find a nation of debtors, staggering beneath loans obtained under false pretenses. In place of a steady, patient accumulation of wealth, they would find bankers and financiers with such a short-term perspective that they never pause to consider the consequences or risks of selling securities they don’t understand. In place of a country where all a man asks of government is ‘not to be disturbed in his toil,’ as Tocqueville put it, they would find a nation of rent-seekers demanding government subsidies to purchase homes, start new ventures, or bail out old ones. They would find what Tocqueville described as the ‘fatal circle’ of materialism–the cycle of acquisition and gratification that drives people back to ever more frenetic acquisition and that ultimately undermines prosperous democracies.

And they would understand why. After flourishing for three centuries in America, the Protestant ethic began to disintegrate, with key elements slowly disappearing from modern American society, vanishing from schools, from business, from popular culture, and leaving us with an economic system unmoored from the restraints of civic virtue. Not even Adam Smith–who was a moral philosopher, after all–imagined capitalism operating in such an ethical vacuum. Bailout plans, new regulatory schemes, and monetary policy moves won’t be enough to spur a robust, long-term revival of American economic opportunity without some renewal of what was once understood as the work ethic–not just hard work but also a set of accompanying virtues, whose crucial role in the development and sustaining of free markets too few now recall. —Manhattan Institute fellow Steve Malanga writing in the Institute’s City Journal, as posted in the Wall Street Journal’s Notable and Quotable column, 9.5.09:

The Boy Man

My daughter calls them “man babies,” those late twenty to thirty something males with no drive, direction or future. Apparently someone else has detected similar characteristics around.

“The Dionysiac crowd on the Mall last winter was probably not prepared to hear their new president exhort the ‘young nation’ to ‘set aside childish things.’

“This inaugural message troubled my ears for two reasons: the clumsy invocation of apostolic authority–St. Paul was the one who said ‘When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things’–and the presumptive maturity of a young leader instructing his countrymen to grow up when his political grooming was limited to 20 years of catechesis under the pastorate of a black supremacist, two ‘look-at-me’ memoirs penned before the age of 50, and a rock star keynote address at the Democratic National Convention.

“If Barack Obama does not strike you as a paragon of maturity, neither are his predecessors George W. Bush, whose ‘Bring it on!’ challenge to Islamic militants conjures the scene of a playground standoff, and Bill Clinton, whose sexual escapades become more intelligible with the admission, ‘I was born at 16 and I’ll always feel I’m 16.’ So are we a childish nation? Or to ask the question that vexes women in nightclubs and church singles groups alike, ‘Where have all the men gone?’…

“The secular bias of the author motivates him to dismiss the practicability of the traditional Judeo-Christian argument for male headship, so the reader is left with an unsatisfying conclusion. Cross tells us we need to forget the idealization of male maturity in the 1950s, celebrate generational differences through conversation and reflection, rethink the thrill culture by engaging in simpler activities like the ‘slow food’ movement, and recognize our familial and social responsibilities…

“Cross reminds me of Mr. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, a father who anxiously observes ‘the wild giddiness of his youngest daughters’ but is ‘contented with laughing at them’ instead of restraining them, either because he is a softy or because he wants to avoid being perceived as patriarchal. Elizabeth, his older and wiser daughter, pleads for her father to be a father: ‘If you, my dear father, will not take the trouble of checking her exuberant spirits, and of teaching her that her present pursuits are not to be the business of her life, she will soon be beyond the reach of amendment. Her character will be fixed.’

“For boys to reach manhood, they need parents to check their ‘exuberant spirits,’ education to refine their vulgarities, and religion to direct their paths. Otherwise they will be ‘beyond the reach of amendment.’ –excerpted from Christopher Benson’s review of Gary Cross’ Men to Boys, The Making of Modern Immaturity, which appeared in The Weekly Standard, Vol. 14, Number 47 issue of 9.7.09.

Amen.