In Foreign Affairs (you have to register to read the essay, but it’s free), George Packer writes about the bungled Iraq War being a sign that America just isn’t as good as it used to be. Iraq was a symptom of our decline, he says, not the cause of it. The essay is primarily about rising inequality over the past 30 years, and how it has hollowed out the American dream while making people at the very top of our society extremely wealthy. You could blame some of this on changing technology and trade patterns, says Packer, but Europe has gone through the same transition we have, and inequality is not nearly as bad there. Packer’s basic point is that back in the day, American elites, both political and corporate, operated as if they had a sense of responsibility beyond their own narrow self-interests, but now they don’t.
He goes on:
But even more fundamental than public policy is the long-term transformation of the manners and morals of American elites — what they became willing to do that they would not have done, or even thought about doing, before. Political changes precipitated, and in turn were aided by, deeper changes in norms of responsibility and self-restraint. In 1978, it might have been economically feasible and perfectly legal for an executive to award himself a multimillion-dollar bonus while shedding 40 percent of his work force and requiring the survivors to take annual furloughs without pay. But no executive would have wanted the shame and outrage that would have followed — any more than an executive today would want to be quoted using a racial slur or photographed with a paid escort. These days, it is hard to open a newspaper without reading stories about grotesque overcompensation at the top and widespread hardship below. Getting rid of a taboo is easier than establishing one, and once a prohibition erodes, it can never be restored in quite the same way. As Leo Tolstoy wrote, “There are no conditions of life to which a man cannot get accustomed, especially if he sees them accepted by everyone around him.”
This past summer, when rioting overtook many English cities, it was widely observed in the British press that the rioters, scummy as they were, were simply behaving like their social betters. Below the jump, an excerpt from an interview I did with Dr. James Arthur, a British social scientist, who was unsparing in his indictment of his society:
There is a sense emerging in the British media that the pathologies that drove underclass youth to riot and loot are not confined to the underclass — that the decadence is more widespread. Do you agree?Yes. Few of the rich in Britain give anything like what American rich people give to promote civil society. The rich aren’t as philanthropic as American rich people are. The rich in England, bankers and celebrities, don’t show a great example to the young. The bankers and others who have made all this money have spent it largely as consumers. I often think they appear to have no moral compass and young people see this.There’s a problem of politicians. We’ve seen how they’re seen to be morally corrupt because of the expenses scandal [in which Members of Parliament were found to have charged the state excessively for personal items and services — Ed.], but the truth is they’re not paid a great deal. As a result, it’s not surprising that a culture developed that allowed them to pad their expenses. They felt they had an entitlement to do those things because they had such a low salary. It is true that they are underpaid, but what these politicians spent their money on were sometimes outrageous — e.g. a duck house in their garden pond! So the politicians are no real example to young people. Neither are the people in business or the captains of industry.And we’re exposed to the celebrity culture, which is completely amoral, and tells people the only thing worth living for is fame, money, and pleasure. For that, the media have a lot to answer for.Young people see this and think it is the norm. And because of the human rights agenda, which places an inordinate emphasis on the child’s wants many think it’s their right to have these consumer goods. It’s been normalized by the media and by the example of politicians and businessmen.The current education system lacks moral authority. Teachers have been stripped of their moral authority. It’s very difficult for teachers to control unruly classes now, because they lack real sanctions can get in trouble for almost anything they do. It all goes back to the human rights lobby. There needs to be more emphasis on the child as a member of the community with certain duties and responsibilities.