Common Ground?

One Nation, Two Cultures: A Searching Examination of American Society in the Aftermath of Our Cultural Revolution
by Gertrude Himmelfarb
Knopf, 192 pp., $ 23

The American Right has for some years been engaged in an internal debate about the relation of virtue to governance. Is it enough to put in place limits on government, or do even good laws need to be backstopped by "virtue in the people" (to use the Founders' phrase) if a free society is to flourish? If virtue in the people is a prerequisite for a free society, what is the role of government in fostering it? And how much virtue do the American people have these days, anyway?

Consensus is emerging on at least the first question. It has always been answered "yes" by social conservatives, but libertarians have also broadly signed on. I can testify that some of the loudest applause from libertarian audiences is drawn by affirmations that a free society depends not just on good laws but on honesty, forbearance, and good will toward one's neighbors. The emerging consensus has been helped along by post-Communist Russia's vivid example of what happens when such virtues are lacking.

But the debate remains fierce about whether the American people are in need of moral renewal and, if they are, whether government can do much about it. Gertrude Himmelfarb's latest contribution to this debate, One Nation, Two Cultures, is the most erudite statement of the social conservatives' position. Kinder and gentler than Robert Bork's Slouching Towards Gomorrah, more nuanced than William Bennett's The De-Valuing of America, Himmelfarb's treatise can serve as a handbook--at least about the nature of our differences--for all parties in this intramural conservative debate. (To disclose my own conflicted position: I am a libertarian who thinks Himmelfarb is one of the nation's great historians.)

Himmelfarb's "two cultures" theme comes from Adam Smith, who observed in Wealth of Nations that the morality of the elite is different from the morality of the common people. The rich can afford to indulge in "luxury, wanton and disorderly mirth, the pursuit of pleasure to some degree of intemperance, the breach of chastity," but the poor cannot. For them, dissipation means ruin.

The moral code of the common people reflects this reality, and it is closely linked to religion, which alone can promise consequences so attractive (Heaven) and terrifying (Hell) that they restrain the human impulse to drink, fornicate, and be injudiciously merry.

For a century and a half, America did not have the kind of elite that produces two cultures. The American rich went through an extravaganza of conspicuous consumption in the last half of the 1800s, but they were not much given to "wanton and disorderly mirth." The wealthy in America more often felt obligated to set a prim example when it came to public expressions of manners and morals.

But America has capitalism, in a form purer and more rambunctious than anywhere else, and capitalism has an uneasy relationship with virtue. Capitalism is nourished by institutions such as religion and marriage--nothing is better for building GNP than a society of observant family men--but capitalism's dynamism and rationalism also place it at odds (so it has been widely argued) with the virtues that nourish it. As Joseph Schumpeter put it, writing in the early 1940s, "Capitalism creates a critical frame of mind which, after having destroyed the moral authority of so many other institutions, in the end turns against its own"--an argument that Daniel Bell would famously extend in 1976 with The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism.

Himmelfarb allies herself with this intellectual tradition and sets out to examine the current state of the four institutions that underpin a successful free society; civil society, the family, the legal/political system, and religion. When I said One Nation, Two Cultures could be used as a handbook by all sides to the debate, I had these chapters in mind. Himmelfarb does not start with the 1990s' Clinton scandals or the 1960s' counterculture or even the 1930s' New Deal. Instead, she gives us a precis of the intellectual underpinnings for the debate, which for the United States are a combination of Founders and British thinkers from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, plus a sprinkling of others--Machiavelli, Hobbes, and the ubiquitous Tocqueville. What makes Himmelfarb's sketches of intellectual history valuable is that she has read prodigiously and mastered her sources. Who but Himmelfarb will give us a quotation from John Stuart Mill, the most famous advocate of individualism, urging government "to promote the virtue and intelligence of the people," reminding us even as she does so of the difference between the Mill of the 1859 On Liberty and the Mill of the 1861 Representative Government?

The intellectual meat and potatoes that fortifies One Nation, Two Cultures is most valuable in the discussion of civil society. The concepts of "civil society" and "community" have grown so sloppy in recent years that they are being denuded of meaning. Himmelfarb cuts through the cant to make a few crucial points.

First, she requires that we think about the precise meaning of words. "Civil society" and "community" are historically different concepts. Civil society (what Ferdinand Tonnies called Gesellschaft) consists of the institutions that mediate between the individual and the state. Civil society is thus something different from a community (Gemeinschaft), which in its original conception does very little mediating with anything outside itself. A community is organic, collectivist, hard to get into, and, once in, hard to get out of. What most people loosely call "communities" today are nothing of the kind. President Clinton used "community" and its plural twenty-three times in his 1996 State of the Union Address, and not one of those uses had any relation to the real meaning of the word. All were Clinton-speak for either "groups of people living in the same geographic area" or "groups of people with the state watching over them."

The endless evocations of "civil society" in the op-ed pages of America's newspapers are seldom much closer to the mark. Civil society in its true sense, Himmelfarb reminds us, has a moral dimension. The institutions of civil society are the enforcers of the social norms. "The 'soft' proponents of civil society pay lip service to the idea but lack the will or conviction to implement it," Himmelfarb writes. And so it has come to pass that we hear praise on every side for charity and compassion as virtues, but no one condemning egotism and hedonism as vices. The family is good, but a 1950s mentality about the family is bad. Even the words "vice" and "stigma" make many modern proponents of civil society uncomfortable. This makes no sense to Himmelfarb. "If civil society is to become an effective instrument of social mediation and reformation, it will have to reaffirm the moral principles that give it its distinctive purpose," she writes. "And it can do that only by exercising its authority and using the social sanctions available to it, sanctions that may be as coercive, psychologically if not physically, as the legal sanctions imposed by the state."

All this has badly needed saying in the measured way that Himmelfarb says it. She is less persuasive to a libertarian when she reaches the question of how much we should call upon the power of the state to reinforce this coherent moral code. Himmelfarb's answer is that government can do a lot, argued in a long chapter entitled "Law and Polity: Legislating Morality." But as I read through that chapter trying to find specific examples of government initiatives to reinforce the moral code with which I could argue, I was struck by how few there were.

She invokes Locke, Mill, Tocqueville, and Burke to make the intellectual case that civil society overlaps the political realm. She lays down many sensible statements of principle: "In their eagerness to do away with the nanny state . . . some conservatives risk belittling, even delegitimizing, the state itself." Or, "In denigrating the state, we also risk attenuating the idea of citizenship," opening a provocative discussion of what it means to be a member of the civitas. And she mentions instances in which laws can indeed affect behaviors related to morality--divorce law, for example.

But Himmelfarb is a skeptical lady, and her statements of principle are considerably more emphatic than her advocacy for specific reforms, which leads to an unanswered question: What laws would a President Himmelfarb propose that Historian Himmelfarb thinks would make a big difference? Take the family as an example. Imagine a legislative package that incorporates all the current social conservative nostrums for supporting the family--such things as tax preferences for two-parent families, larger deductions for children, tougher child support requirements for fathers, laws to help mothers stay home with small children. Imagine another legislative package designed by libertarians that wipes out the welfare state and removes every obligation of a man toward a woman or the children she bears except those contracted in marriage (which are strictly enforced). Which package, the social conservative's or the libertarian's, is going to have a huge, positive impact on women's demands on men? On the prevalence and social place of marriage? On the illegitimacy statistics? Himmelfarb can rightly object to the thought experiment on the grounds that it is unrealistic and that policy reforms must start from where we are. But if the question is the role of the state in inculcating virtue, the possibility has to be confronted that a genuinely limited government is the most nurturing environment for strong families, extensive and vigorous mediating institutions, and the kinds of social rewards and punishments--including social stigma--whose erosion Himmelfarb laments.

This hypothesis about the merits of destroying the welfare state is not theoretical. Its logic is consistent with the state of the family, of mediating institutions, and of social controls in pre-FDR America, despite the preceding century and a half of rip-roaring capitalism. Its logic is consistent with the deterioration in every Western industrial nation following the adoption of a welfare state. The historical record cannot be dispositive (because we have no example of a modern industrial state that delayed the beginning of the welfare state past the 1930s), but what the historical record does show is strikingly consistent with the proposition that the welfare state and a metastasizing government, not capitalism, are the great destroyers of family and civil society.

That brings us, however, to the question of just how destroyed family and civil society are in America today. What are we to make of the contemporary state of virtue? Himmelfarb sees in the United States a dominant culture corrupted by the elites, while a subsidiary culture of two-parent families, usually religious, is valiantly trying to rear its children right and to adhere to traditional moral standards.

One Nation, Two Cultures presents a variety of evidence to support this view. But disaggregation is the key to analysis of American social trends, and disaggregation by socioeconomic class suggests that the upper levels of society are the least depraved. Illegitimacy, perhaps the single most important social problem, is overwhelmingly concentrated in the lowest socioeconomic levels. Divorce is more common among the working class than among the affluent. It is the children of the affluent who are being sent to the most demanding schools and for whom educational and occupational expectations are the highest. Alcoholism, drug abuse, and child abuse are concentrated in the lower classes. The phrase "soccer mom" is in use because it is so common for children in upper-middle-class neighborhoods to be raised by stay-at-home mothers who are as single-mindedly devoted to their children as any nineteenth-century housewife.

None of this is meant to exonerate the intellectual elites--small subsets of the upper socioeconomic levels--from Himmelfarb's critique. She is surely correct in arguing that wrongheaded messages promulgated by the elites during the 1960s and 1970s were major causes of the phenomenon that Daniel Patrick Moynihan has called "defining deviancy down." But there are signs that the moral pendulum has begun to swing in the right direction for the upper three-quarters of American society and that many of the most pernicious elements of elite culture in academia are spent forces. It isn't fair that the same elites who so cavalierly threw bombs at the American culture a few decades ago are among those who find it easiest to recover from the damage they did, but such may be the case.

The two cultures that I see are instead a dominant culture--embracing everyone from the skilled working class through the elites--which is healing, and a second culture--the culture of the underclass, violent, solipsistic, vulgar, hostile--which has become large enough and coherent enough to make inroads into the rest of society, with the lower part of the working class most at risk. If there is an indictment of capitalism to be drawn up, I think it lies in the willingness of the music business, the television networks, and the film industry to put their formidable talents in the service of helping the values of the underclass culture become chic. Societies have always had a remnant with the values of the under-class; it is only in the late twentieth century that these values have been given public standing.

My version of the two cultures is as open to dispute as Himmelfarb's, of course, and it will take the distance of many decades--the historian's distance--before these issues can be adjudicated. Himmelfarb's formidable accomplishment in One Nation, Two Cultures is to have reduced a huge subject to its essentials, set it in its historical and intellectual context, and presented the social conservatives' point of view with balance, insight, and wit worthy of her Victorian heroes.

Charles Murray is a senior fellow at AEI.

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