It’s Values, Stupid

Though I do not agree with every point David Brooks makes here, I will give him one thing. He zeros in on the central problem in the current global financial crisis-values.

In the pathetic theater of swap-the-blame we currently witness in Europe and the US, one fundamental truth gets ignored consistently. No amount of laws, financial regulations, or institution-building can overcome a world whose values have deteriorated.

The 20th century brought us unprecedented prosperity and well-being. Standards of living soared and mankind leaped beyond its previous confines by several degrees of magnitude. We became rich materially.

It is sometimes said that if you hate someone, wish him success early in life–he is sure to come down hard. Similarly, we have now spawned several generations who enjoy much after having suffered little. There is nothing wrong with being born into plenty–unless we forget the source of the bounty.

Children of the sixties were romanced by the prospect of breaking out, they just didn’t know what they breaking out of or into. Awash in things, they turned to loathing them. Blessed with freedom, they exercised a silly mutation of it, thinking long hair and bare feet were the point. Mocking all social standards, they failed to identify the ones that led to their having the luxury of time to protest and wax poetic about their oppression. The spectre of Marx seduced them into a self-contradictory and misguided social tantrum.

One can forgive the goofier elements of that decade. I myself was drawn occasionally into the vortex of pointless anarchy and vague rebellion. Most of us realized that we were right to challenge some things, like the stultifying confines of traditional religion and social conservatism. We also grew up and realized that despising gainful employment in particular and commerce in general was stupid.

Few stayed stuck in the 60’s. Those that did are caricatures now. A few show up at Occupy Wall Street events. Others live quiet and inconsequential lives. Still others suffer, homeless and friendless. No one who loathed material things sincerely came to live well later. The communes croaked and the ashrams closed, testaments to the failure of an ideal that never was ideal or even desirable.

It is not the overt advocates of those values who pose a danger to us now. They are easily identified and the result of their own bad decisions. We can at least respect their honesty. They live badly because they openly adhere to a bad set of values. The real danger is the generations that followed.

After the tie-dyes faded, the world was a significantly less serious place. It became inhabited by people who did not object to materialism; they assumed it. They assumed it would always be there, that it would always get better, and that there would always be plenty to go around. Worse, they failed to question how or why their phones got better, their houses got bigger, and their toys got gaudier. Their values did not change as much as they just evaporated.

Now, Marx is resurrected in the form of apathy–apathy toward the mechanisms of production, apathy toward the values that make production possible, and apathy toward anything more serious than the next handout. The object of protest is no longer even identified clearly. It is despised as one would despise a stranger for being a stranger.

In the nations that have retained some recognition of the power of self-responsibility, there is still a glimmer of hope. The middle swath of America is such a place. Germany too, if we can believe Brooks. People there see that life is demanding and survival not guaranteed. They know that life generally gives us what we put into it. They do not expect to work small and live large.

This set of values will be the difference between our species thriving and suffering. They run through or are a stranger to the heart of every individual. Yours, mine, everyone’s. When the right values are shared by many, a country prospers as ours did at one time. When it is just you and me, things get ugly. Look at Greece.

If you are not sure whether your values align with the best in you, a reverence for your ability to take on the responsibility for your own life, some quiet time is recommended. If the notion scares you, be brave–I know you can. If you hide behind the lame excuse that others invariably “can’t help it,” you are poisoning their lives. For you, I recommend getting to know a set of people who know what it is like to honor oneself and still lift up those who try. They are out there, for now. Let’s hope they always are.

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About Terry Noel

I am an Associate Professor of Management and Quantitative Methods at Illinois State University. My specialty is entrepreneurship.
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