The permanent marriage between economics and morality

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In case you didn’t receive the memo that all the cool people get, only the backwards types still cling to religion. The hip and enlightened all know that ancient myths are just that. Smart people long ago outgrew the need for them. (Stick with me here.)

Those who are reaching higher levels of human political consciousness believe that the Republican Party must get with it and stay with what it’s good at – which is economics. (You might legitimately ask – when was the last time the GOP was good at economics?) Those more highly evolved individuals think the GOP shouldn’t be talking about old fashioned things like morality. Who are any of us to impose our beliefs or moral standards on anyone else?

Readers of this column know my attitude about those who think thoughts like the ones expressed in the previous two paragraphs. It’d be funny – but that sort of foolishness isn’t funny. Moral ignorance and relativism are a ticket for societal decay and disaster. Our founding fathers knew it – see the quotes below. There are many more quotes to be found from that era – and every era since – by important people expressing the very same sentiment.

Sarcasm actually seems a little out of place when the import of this topic is considered. Mankind doesn’t exactly have the best of records when it comes to “civilized” behavior. Humanity isn’t naturally humane. For those who don’t know history, I’d recommend they get caught up on what’s happened through the millennia. The past only confirms the reality of the life experienced today by people in many places all over the world.

Those of us in the West are indeed blessed – at least for now. The past – and an awareness of what many of our fellow men and women still endure serves as fair warning for what is possible again in this country. Human nature hasn’t changed or evolved. The need for a moral code will never be passé.

The other day the Wall Street Journal quoted at some length from an article by one of my favorite writers, Steve Malanga. Malanga’s full article appears in the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal, and in it, he writes of the Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville, who travelled through America in the 1830s and wrote of his findings (emphasis added):

“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.”

Malanga asks what Tocqueville would think of America today. For ease of reading, here is his answer put into bullet points:

  • In place of thrift – a nation of debtors, staggering beneath loans obtained under false pretenses.
  • In place of a steady, patient accumulation of wealth – 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 – a nation of rent-seekers demanding government subsidies to purchase homes, start new ventures, or bail out old ones.
  • Tocqueville would find what he 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.

Steve Malanga writes (again, emphasis added):

“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.

Tell me again how the cool people think morality is out-dated? Explain the part about how we’ll see a successful economic system amidst societal (that is moral) decay? So, you’re saying people will live by the “if it feels good do it” ethic in life – but then switch gears when it comes to their economic behavior? What’s all that stuff about how the GOP should drop the cultural issues?

Freedom isn’t free and moral ignorance is very costly.

“We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry, would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”  — John Adams

“God who gave us life gave us liberty. And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are a gift from God? That they are not to be violated but with His wrath? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, and that His justice cannot sleep forever.”  — Thomas Jefferson

“God governs in the affairs of man. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without His aid? We have been assured in the Sacred Writings that except the Lord build the house, they labor in vain that build it. I firmly believe this. I also believe that, without His concurring aid, we shall succeed in this political building no better than the builders of Babel.”  — Benjamin Franklin

©2009 John Francis Biver

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