Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Middle-Class Virtue, Chaos and Dysfuction

We're still talking about The Age of Abundance. One point Lindsey stresses is that the decline of traditional restraints has opened up serious class differences. The upper middle classes still have plenty of work ethic and self-discipline. But many people further down the economic scale do not. They were disproportionately harmed by the "anything goes" mentality of the Aquarians. 

The shift in values that took place during the sixties and seventies concentrated its benefits on the upper and middling segments of society. Its harshest consequences, meanwhile, fell disproportionately on the working and lower classes. Why the disparate impact? The answer lies in this paradox: although freedom is experienced as the absence of restraint, it is experienced most fully when particular restraints are vigorously maintained. In other words, contrary to those under the spell of the romantic delusion, not all limitations on choice are the enemies of freedom. Rather, some are ultimately, and crucially, freedom enhancing. For those with the appropriate discipline, the Aquarian quest for self-realization usually led to a fuller, richer exploration of life’s possibilities. But among those without that discipline, the turn toward self-assertiveness too often proved a cruel trap.

Trust, deferral of gains and planning for the future - the bourgeois virtues - are precisely what is often missing.

At the low end of the skills continuum, members of the underclass operate within such narrow time horizons and circles of trust that their lives are plagued by chronic chaos and dysfunction. At the high end, members of the managerial and professional elite amass high levels of human capital in the form of expertise and relationships, which allows them to produce significant economic value and claim commensurate rewards.

This seems to be very much related to what Charles Murray is arguing in his latest book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010. I haven't read it yet. But from the reviews he argues upper-class Americans retain considerable self-discipline for themselves, but fail to embed it as cultural leaders in the broader national culture. Their nonjudgementalism has negative consequences for the rest of society.

This is not a welcome message to many on the left, who see it as "blaming the victim" and who generally downplay cultural explanations. It's nothing that more stimulus or more jobs wouldn't fix, so the response goes.

But I suspect social liberalism has often done massive damage to its intended beneficiaries. Progressive intentions are not enough. A shift in values can have many unintended consequences.




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