Economic values do not spring from a vacuum. They are rooted in the broader moral values we rely on to navigate our lives.
Let me stipulate that I hold no brief for Protestantism – or Christianity, monotheism, or religion in general. I draw my values from reason, not faith. But history strongly suggests that Western Civilization owes its motive force, and unparalleled success, to a set of values that the German philosopher Max Weber called “the Protestant work ethic.” It was probably best personified by the American patron saint of civic virtue, Benjamin Franklin.
One need not be a practicing Protestant to espouse this ethic, or a brilliant polymath to profit from its practice. After half a century of Communist depredation, the Chinese people are lifting themselves up by their own bootstraps, practicing values that would have been quite familiar to both Weber and Franklin. Every hardworking Mexican who crawls across our border to build a better life for himself and his family embodies the Protestant work ethic.
Waves upon waves of immigrants have been attracted to our shores because the United States offered both freedom and economic opportunities they could not find in their native lands. And it is these immigrants and their progeny that fueled the greatest economic success story in human history. Their willingness to work hard, choose savings over current consumption, and invest in their families and local voluntary civic organizations are the foundations upon which capitalism was built. It took only the rule of law and respect for private property to unleash the dynamism of the American Way.
The causes of America’s current economic malaise are many, and some are harder to address than others. The misguided fiscal, monetary, and regulatory policies of our profligate and dysfunctional government head the list. Those can be turned around.
The alarming statistics can be seen in the accompanying graph. The first is the breadwinner index—the percent of the U.S. male population that is gainfully employed. Only a few points of this decline can be ascribed to the aging of the population. The graph for males 18 to 52 has much the same slope.
The second shows the number of out-of-wedlock births, the rate of which surpassed 40 percent of all births as of 2008. Add to this the new-normal 50 percent divorce rate and we have a country in which the majority of our children are being raised outside of the economic unit once known as the nuclear family.
If figuring out how to dig ourselves out of the fiscal, monetary, and regulatory morass we find ourselves in is the policy issue of our time, then finding a way to restore our lost Protestant work ethic is the top moral issue. I suspect traditional religion won’t get the job done. Too many Americans have permanently checked out of the church, including myself, for various reasons. So if we are to find a solution, it must be here on Earth.
The battle to restore economic virtue will be no easier than the battle to balance the federal budget. That is because the fight against our slide into dependency isn’t just political, but, cultural.
Our educational, cultural, and media institutions remain in the thrall of an empowered elite that sees the Protestant work ethic as a quaint relic at best, or a system of “false consciousness” to perpetuate the working class’s oppression at worst. Instead, they offer up a multicultural stew of collectivist nostrums that deride individual responsibility and exalt the redistributionist welfare state as the central institution around which we should build our lives.
I fear that the only remedy is the one that history usually administers when a society’s mores come in conflict with reality. Suffering. Most likely, America will have to endure a sharp decline in its standard of living before traditional economic values have a chance to be rediscovered.