The Magazine

Growing Pains

Can economic progress coexist with moral decline?

Aug 14, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 45 • By JOEL SCHWARTZ
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In criticizing Friedman for ignoring developments like these, I am not blaming him for writing this book as opposed to the one that I think he should have written. He writes as an advocate of economic and social mobility. But the mobility that he rightly desires was and is, in large measure, precluded by the calamitous behavior (attested to by the statistics I have just cited) that he fails to consider.

Whether or not these baleful social indicators were caused by the War on Poverty, they clearly ensured that the War on Poverty would fail. Poor people who commit crimes, produce illegitimate children, and accept doles will continue to be mired in poverty rather than advancing out of it. Friedman's lengthy book does not speak to this concern, apart from a somewhat odd statement alluding to a "Romantic reaction [that] focused on America, addressing mounting concerns over the deterioration of the family as an institution and of individual values more generally." (An endnote cites Gertrude Himmelfarb's De-Moralization of Society. I will confess to never before having thought of Himmelfarb as a romantic--let alone a Romantic!)

Friedman writes as an advocate of tolerance, but he does not think enough about which things should, and should not, be tolerated. Why did the '60s witness a rise in crime, births out of wedlock, and welfare dependency? At least to some extent, because many influential Americans not only tolerated but also actively welcomed behavior that should still have been opposed. In Lawrence Mead's formulation, "Those on the left sought . . . to challenge conventional beliefs about personal and social discipline. They wanted a society that was more inclusive but also more individualist, and less insistent on the work ethic, law abidingness, and the conventional family." The ensuing society, which did not demand that its citizens work, obey the law, and procreate only within marriage, predictably failed to ameliorate poverty.

The problem of illegitimacy in particular--unlike the problems of crime and welfare dependency--has continued to worsen, in both good and bad economic times, during the past four decades. It is hard to imagine that much can be done to increase the social mobility of impoverished Americans so long as so many of them continue to produce children out of wedlock. But this is a problem about which Friedman has next to nothing to say, apart from noting the educational problems of children who live "in situations in which only one parent (or maybe neither) is present at home."

Friedman correctly links his aspirations for societies that are prosperous, tolerant, and democratic to the views of Enlightenment thinkers. But it is also arguable that the collapse of marriage, which does so much to worsen the plight of the poor, is itself at least indirectly a result of the Enlightenment. James Q. Wilson has made this case effectively, noting that "the greatest familial problems . . . exist in countries where the culture has most fully embraced the Enlightenment ideal."

Elaborating on this point, Wilson has explained that:

The Enlightenment made us preoccupied with individual rights and more restless with collective obligations; . . . more ready to search for self-expression than to accept joint endeavors. It only slowly and gradually affected marriage, but once the genie of individual rights was out of the bottle there was no way it could either be put back in or kept from influencing sex and marriage.

The Enlightenment is arguably of a piece, and it may not be possible to take its beneficial consequences (which Friedman celebrates) while rejecting its problematic ones (which he overlooks). Friedman is half-right to assert that economic growth has desirable moral consequences. But it is necessary to realize that individualistic societies devoted to economic growth also have moral problems because such societies have weaker marriages and families. It is by no means clear that these problems are soluble, but they certainly cannot be solved if they are not acknowledged.

We cannot plausibly assess a society's morality so long as, like Friedman, we are oblivious to what is problematic about the behavior of the individual men and women who inhabit that society.

Joel Schwartz, an adjunct senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, is the author of Fighting Poverty With Virtue: Moral Reform and America's Urban Poor, 1825-2000.