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Monday, June 22, 2015

The Moral Decline of America

By Walter E. Williams

A civilized society's first line of defense is not the law, police and courts but customs, traditions, rules of etiquette and moral values. These behavioral norms — mostly transmitted by example, word of mouth and religious teachings — represent a body of wisdom distilled over the ages through experience and trial and error. They include important thou-shalt-nots, such as thou shalt not murder, thou shalt not steal and thou shalt not cheat. They also include all those courtesies that have traditionally been associated with ladylike and gentlemanly conduct.

The failure to fully transmit these values and traditions to subsequent generations represents one of the failings of what journalist Tom Brokaw called "The Greatest Generation." People in this so-called great generation, who lived during the trauma of the Great Depression and fought World War II, not only failed to transmit the moral values of their parents but also are responsible for government programs that will deliver economic chaos.


Behavior accepted as the norm today would have been seen as despicable yesteryear. There are television debt relief commercials that promise to help debtors pay back only half of what they owe. Foul language is spoken by children in front of and sometimes to teachers and other adults. When I was a youngster, it was unthinkable to use foul language to any adult. It would have meant risking a smack across the face. But years ago, parents and teachers didn't have "experts" on child rearing to tell them that corporal punishment was wrong and ineffective and "timeouts" would be a superior form of discipline. One result of our tolerance for aberrant behavior was that, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, during the 2011-12 academic year, 209,000 primary- and secondary-school teachers were physically assaulted and 353,000 were threatened with injury. As a result of this and other forms of school violence, many school districts employ hundreds of police officers.

Nowadays baby showers are often held for unwed mothers. Yesteryear such an acceptance of illegitimacy would have been unthinkable. Today there is little or no social sanction or shame for illegitimate births. There are no "shotgun" weddings to make the man live up to his responsibilities. But not to worry. Taxpayers bear the financial burden of illegitimacy. Any economist worth his salt will tell you that if something is taxed, expect less of it. If something is subsidized, expect more of it. Taxpayers have been forced to subsidize slovenly behavior. The statistical evidence proves it. According to the 1938 Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences, that year 11 percent of black children and 3 percent of white children were born to unwed mothers. Today 72 percent of black children and 30 percent of white children are born to unwed mothers.

For nearly three-quarters of a century, the nation's liberals have waged war on traditional values, customs and morality. Our youths have been counseled that there are no moral absolutes. Instead, what's moral or immoral is a matter of personal opinion. During the 1960s, the education establishment began to challenge and undermine lessons children learned from their parents and Sunday school with fads such as "values clarification." So-called sex education classes are simply indoctrination that undermines family and church strictures against premarital sex. Lessons of abstinence were considered passe and replaced with lessons about condoms, birth control pills and abortions. Further undermining of parental authority came with legal and extralegal measures to assist teenage abortions with neither parental knowledge nor parental consent.

You say, "OK, Williams, the Greatest Generation is responsible for our moral decline, but what about our economic decline?" Ask yourself: What are the massive government spending programs that threaten to bankrupt our nation in the future? The answer would have to be Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Over 50 percent of today's federal budget is spent on these programs. Around the time when many in the so-called Greatest Generation were born (1920), there were no such programs, and federal spending was $53 billion. In 2014, federal spending was $3.5 trillion.

If it were only the economic decline threatening our future, there might be hope. It's the moral decline that spells our doom.

Walter E. Williams is a professor of economics at George Mason University and author of Race & Economics: How Much Can Be Blamed on Discrimination?

1 comment:

  1. Some of the customs, traditions, and rules of etiquette Williams identifies are not necessarily tied to statism. We don't need to defer to the authority of elders, refrain from premarital sex, or get whacked by parents in order to stand against state taxation and intervention.

    Williams takes a traditional political conservative approach here attempting to join at the hip a specific program of traditional personal values to political freedom. The unspoken implication is everyone is responsible for everyone else and must jointly hold the same values. Accordingly, here is a set of well-tested personal values proven to yield less dependence on the state, so it must be the right one and should be taught to everyone.

    That strikes afoul of libertarian sensibilities. Libertarians rather emphasize how no one is inherently responsible for anyone else, how good fences make good neighbors, and how everyone should be free to live on his own property according to his own values no matter how wooly so long as he interacts with others only voluntarily.

    I do agree though that certain general categories of personal values, such as taking responsibility, employing independent judgement, being productive, and honoring agreements are necessary to thrive under liberty. These come from the nature of reality. These broader values are important to pass on to children. People lacking them are ill-equipped to survive in the natural world and thus face a much higher incentive to gravitate toward violence/statism. Violence/statism doesn't require these values only because it allows devotees to live as parasites upon others who do practice these values.

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