Fundamentals of an economy are often viewed in terms of the magnitude and growth of its per capita gross domestic product, the flow of new housing, national debt relative to GDP, and other real factors.
But of equal importance are citizen incentives to work, to save, to invest and take risks – the moral fiber of its people as expressed in personal responsibility for one’s well being, including family. Because we suffer from self-inflicted disintegration of values, these aspects of our national culture are not sound.
Indeed, over the past century our culture has changed for the worse. Under the cover of relativism (my values and morals are just as good as yours), our society has adopted a new culture, in which venerable standards, restrictions and constraints are relaxed, and proudly abandoned. We forget that the old culture held us in good stead for centuries, bringing forth – contrary to President Obama’s constant deprecations – one of the world’s greatest civilizations.
AMONG OUR greatest losses has been the marked decline in the public’s sense of personal responsibility. This value has long served as an edifice of our free economy, if not its most important building block. It is the underpinning of personal incentive, the stalwart foundation of family well-being. It bolstered personal pride and that pride, in turn, reinforced our sense of responsibility.
We have failed to instill in our school programs – from K-12 grades through colleges and even Ph.D. programs – the importance of the work ethic, personal and family responsibility, and the benefits of personal freedom and citizen well being in a competitive, free-market economy. These values must be taught by careful, logical reasoning; their absorption cannot be assumed. It must be taught with enthusiasm and conviction, not like a Roman prisoner approaching execution on the Bridge of Sighs.
In sum, we have allowed our educational process to deteriorate before our eyes. Because of our representative form of government, we all share responsibility for its collapse.
THE DECLINE in personal responsibility helps (it is not the sole cause) spawn a myriad of welfare programs. Politicians have made perpetual personal and corporate welfare viable long-term options. The U.S. Department of Agriculture heavily advertises the availability of food stamps while the Department of Health and Human Services carefully assists us in qualifying for Medicaid. Other agencies provide citizens cell phones with virtually no questions asked.
Diminishing personal responsibility relaxes health and dietary standards, inducing people to look to health assistance programs when they become ill or in need. If so then we should find evidence supporting this view in research studies. For example, the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, (The NHSDA Report, April 19, 2002 – the latest available) finds that illicit drug use was higher in publicly assisted families than in unassisted families among persons ages 12 to 64. Moreover, when questioned about alcohol consumption, responders ages 18 to 25 on assistance reported a decline in abusive drinking relative to those not receiving assistance, while those in assisted groups ages 35 to 49 indicated higher consumption compared to the non-assistance group.
THUS OVERALL, drug abuse is more of a problem among those on welfare than for those not on public assistance, but for those on assistance, alcohol abuse is more related to age – elderly are more prone than younger consumers. While we can let sociologists and psychologists sort these factors out, the evidence is clear of a breakdown in personal responsibility.
This evidence is compatible with the belief, that with some people the availability of public assistance encourages them to relax their sense of personal responsibility by consuming more illicit drugs and alcohol, knowing that they have the fall back of public assistance to bail them out. Just as big financial institutions carry the label “too big to fail,” which encourages them to acquire dangerous financial risks, consumers have an analogous perverse incentive: to shirk personal responsibility in the face of public assistance opportunities.
TO MAKE MATTERS worse, we have allowed a coalition of politicians, teachers’ unions, and administrators take control of the public academic process and tolerate diminishing moral standards, less effective values, a dumbed-down curriculum and a weaker culture, which some households have tried to counteract while others have simply acquiesced in or reinforced. Unfortunately, our colleges and universities do not fare much better.
All this paints a dark picture of our society’s well-being and its prospects for a brighter future. But there is hope of a groundswell of positive thinking from the general population. It might spring from interest groups, like veterans, leading the way. Veterans are more likely to re-ignite ashes of traditional maxims, especially the long-discredited value of patriotism.
Meanwhile, one must show resilience and adjust to these altered rules, roll with the punches and, as always, do the best one can. But above all, maintain the flame of optimism. Keep the faith.
(The writer is a professor emeritus of financial economics at the University of Georgia. He lives in Aiken, S.C.)