Freeman

IDEAS AND CONSEQUENCES

As Values Collapse, Government Grows

Restoring America's Foundational Values Ought to Be a Top Priority

MAY 01, 1994 by LAWRENCE W. REED

The collapse of moral and ethical values in American society is frighteningly real and equally dangerous. Consider the findings of a recent Louis Harris poll of 5,000 young people.

Of those high schoolers in the poll, 65 percent said “Yes, I would cheat to pass an important exam.” Fifty-three percent said they would lie to protect a friend who has vandalized school property.

One of the questions asked was, “What do you take to be the most believable authority in matters of truth?” One to two percent said science or the media. Three to four percent said religion or their parents. Most of the kids said “Me.”

In a different study done by an international public relations firm, 67 percent of American high school seniors said they would happily inflate an expense account, 50 percent would pad an insurance claim, and 66 percent said they would willingly lie to achieve a business objective.

These and other appalling manifestations of a national moral and ethical vacuum were cited in a remarkable speech in 1991 by Rushworth Kidder, president of The Institute for Global Ethics in Camden, Maine. He was speaking at Principia College in Illinois.

Kidder recounted a true story about a 10-year-old child in Brooklyn, New York, who found on the street a wallet full of money, credit cards, and identification. The boy took the wallet into school and was unable to find either a teacher or an administrator who was able to tell him what was the right thing to do with the wallet.

“I can’t possibly impose my values on you,” Kidder said the teachers and administrators seemed to be saying. Even more incredibly, when he told this story “in the company of about seven very bright college juniors and seniors sitting around a dinner table at a very good liberal arts college in California,” every single one said those teachers and administrators were absolutely right. This is worse than situational ethics; it’s just no ethics at all.

Should it be any wonder, then, that crime is up? In a recent year—1990—one violent crime was committed every 17 seconds in America, compared to every 3 minutes in 1963. Thirty years ago, one murder occurred every hour in America; now it’s every 22 minutes. Likewise for rape: one every 32 minutes then, one every 5 minutes now. Robbery: one every 5 minutes then, one every 49 seconds today. Burglary: one every 32 seconds then, one every 10 seconds now.

Just between 1986 and 1992, the murder rate was up 14 percent, the incidence of rape was up 12 percent, and street robbery was up 21 percent. Motor vehicle theft increased 15 percent, while robbery of convenience stores and aggravated assault both rose a whopping 26 percent.

Twenty three hundred American youth between the ages of 15 and 19 were murdered in 1990—up by 53 percent since 1982.

As America prepares to enter the 21st century, Americans have become some of the most violent people on the planet. They feel less safe in their homes and on their streets than at any time in the history of the country. And when we’re not assaulting or being assaulted, i.t seems we spend a lot of time cursing, conniving, lying, deceiving, backstabbing, and otherwise being unfaithful to spouse, family, friends, or associates. Our politicians seem to hit new lows of public and private morality with each new scandalous revelation. How can our society possibly retain any meaningful measure of freedom if these trends persist and deepen?

At the core of America’s values crisis, Kidder pointed out so well in his speech, is the destructive, demoralizing notion that all values are in the eye of the beholder, that there are no “absolutes” against which the actions and decisions of people should be judged.

The teaching of values, Kidder says, may not yet be extinct, but it has been relegated (particularly at the college level) to a neutralist approach, where the teacher “is not to get in the way of kids discovering their own standards.”

Distinctions between right and wrong are being eroded. Indeed, it seems that many people these days think the only choices are between right and right, that fewer and fewer things are really “wrong” when their “context” or the individual’s motives are taken into account.

Moral and ethical relativism has suffused its poison throughout society, a major reason America has been losing its values compass. But that isn’t the only thing we’re losing.

The first casualty when the moral/ethical core of society evaporates is freedom. Law (government) fills the void—directing by threat of force those aspects of life that formerly were governed by our ethical standards.

Ethical people don’t require fines for tossing trash out of car windows or for embezzling funds from their employer, because ethical people just don’t do those things.

Nor do ethical people abandon responsibility for the education of their children or the care of their parents and expect society to do the job. Ethical people don’t cast off their problems onto others because they have both a healthy dose of self-esteem and a respect for the lives and property of others. Moral people do not stake a claim of any kind on what doesn’t belong to them. The erosion of values—ethical, moral, or whatever adjective you choose to employ—is freedom’s single most lethal threat.

The choice, in other words, is to govern yourself or be governed. The less you do of the former, the more you’ll get of the latter.

Ultimately, the standards by which we order our personal lives as well as our relationships with family, associates and others determine the sum and substance of our society. When those standards are strong, people take care of themselves and those around them; they work for a living instead of voting for one.

But when those standards decay, we pay the price in broken families, crime, drug abuse, child neglect, a loss of personal independence and greater reliance upon public welfare. If the rot gets deep enough, the price can be reckoned in terms of national bankruptcy and dictatorship. Whole civilizations in history have travelled this path and bit the dust.

Restoring our foundational values ought to be top priority for all Americans. There’s just too much at stake for us to do otherwise.

ASSOCIATED ISSUE

May 1994

ABOUT

LAWRENCE W. REED

Lawrence W. (“Larry”) Reed became president of FEE in 2008 after serving as chairman of its board of trustees in the 1990s and both writing and speaking for FEE since the late 1970s. Prior to becoming FEE’s president, he served for 20 years as president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Midland, Michigan. He also taught economics full-time from 1977 to 1984 at Northwood University in Michigan and chaired its department of economics from 1982 to 1984.

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