Thursday, August 27, 2009

The End of an Ethic

Longtime readers of this blog might recall that last fall I theorized that the cultural cause of the financial crisis was the loss of civic virtue, the loss of a work ethic, and the rise of an anti-ethic valuing pleasure, self-interest, and self-esteem.

There is a difference between earning what you have and believing that you deserve to have things even when you have not earned them. And there is a difference between the self-respect that you earn by your good conduct and the esteem that you claim for yourself and demand from others regardless of your accomplishments.

It seemed to me at the time, and it still seems to be the case that this kind of counter-ethic aptly describes what happened to the mortgage and housing markets. I believed then and I believe now that the origin of that counter-ethic lay in the advent of a counterculture that morphed into our current mania with political correctness.

Today I was happy to discover a more comprehensive study of the loss of the American work ethic in relation to the collapse of the financial markets and the rise of the counterculture.

Writing in "City Journal" Stephen Malanga examines the importance of civic virtue for the proper functioning of a capitalist economy and free markets. He shows how the nation inculcated civic virtues like--thrift, industry, modesty-- from its inception.

He goes on to show how the counterculture fostered an entirely different set of values. Once put into practice these values, Malanga says, created the conditions that would eventually nearly destroy the financial system. Link here.

What does it all mean? It means that the next time you tune in an episode of Mad Men and rejoice over the fact that countercultural warriors led us out of the wasteland of the early 1960s, you should think to yourself that America's flaws-- and it certainly had its share-- were not sufficiently grievous to necessitate our throwing the baby out with the bath water. Pardon the cliche.

The counterculture exploited the flaws in American society to produce what appeared to be more a revolution than a reformation.

In so doing it discarded the Protestant work ethic in favor of the Playboy philosophy, the therapy culture, and the glorification of personal self-aggrandizement.

If the counterculture were merely promoting the value of providing more work opportunities for those who had been systematically and unjustly excluded from the marketplace, that would have been one thing. It could certainly have done so while affirming the work ethic.

And if the counterculture wanted the nation to overcome the heritage of slavery and segregation, to produce more integrated and diverse communities, it could have followed the example of the one community where integration had become the rule, not the exception. That is the military.

As we know, the military was racially integrated before the rest of the nation. Today the most successful racially integrated schools exist on military bases.

But since the counterculture loved love and hated war, it could not encourage people to follow what had worked for the military.

And since the counterculture loved pleasure and hated work, it could not promote the traditional American work ethic.

As Malanga correctly notes, the new counter-ethic does not represent a great or even a revolutionary cultural advance.

In fact, it is a throwback to the old days when a hereditary aristocracy and a landed gentry did not have to work-- they had servants and slaves-- and thus could indulge the finer and more delicious things in life without having earned them and without feeling a need to enhance the common good.

Call it a revolution if you must, but the 60s counterculture, a product of a countercultural movement that had originated to oppose the Industrial Revolution and the Protestant Work Ethic, was at its core ... reactionary.

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