In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville worried that free, capitalist societies might develop so great a “taste for physical gratification” that citizens would be “carried away, and lose all self-restraint.” Avidly seeking personal gain, they could “lose sight of the close connection which exists between the private fortune of each of them and the prosperity of all” and ultimately undermine both democracy and prosperity.
So begins a long but fascinating article in City Journal by Steven Malanga, Manhattan Institute Scholar and author of The New New Left, and the article heats up from there:
What would Tocqueville or Weber think of America today? In place of thrift, they would find a nation of debtors, staggering beneath loans obtained under false pretenses. In place of a steady, patient accumulation of wealth, they would find bankers and financiers with such a short-term perspective that they never pause to consider the consequences or risks of selling securities they don’t understand. In place of a country where all a man asks of government is “not to be disturbed in his toil,” as Tocqueville put it, they would find a nation of rent-seekers demanding government subsidies to purchase homes, start new ventures, or bail out old ones. They would find what Tocqueville described as the “fatal circle” of materialism—the cycle of acquisition and gratification that drives people back to ever more frenetic acquisition and that ultimately undermines prosperous democracies.
I agree with much of the writer's sentiment, and I recommend a full read. I don't know if I fully buy every example he lists, but I did find interesting the anecdote about how virtue became separated from work and replaced by politically correct gestures, even in board games:
When the Milton Bradley Company reintroduced “The Checkered Game of Life” in a modern version called “The Game of Life” in the mid-1960s, it abandoned the notion of rewarding traditional bourgeois virtues like completing an education or marrying. What was left of the game was simply the pursuit of cash, until Milton Bradley, criticized for this version, redesigned the game to include rewards for doing good. But its efforts produced mere political correctness: in the new version, recycling trash and contributing to save an endangered species were virtuous actions that won a player points. Such gestures, along with tolerance and sensitivity, expanded like a gas to fill the vacuum where the Protestant ethic used to be.
The article stands on its own, but I would like to make a couple of tangential points. First, there is a huge difference between hard work and honest work. We have plenty of the former. Does anyone doubt that bankers, lobbyists, corporate executives, and their attorneys don't work tirelessly? It is the lack of virtues that corrupts hard work and ingenuity to give us the over-leveraged, loop-holing, back-room dealing, government-dependent, shortsighted society we find ourselves in.
That said, greed, dishonesty, and envy are not new to the human condition. So what has changed? How did we evolve into such a Machiavellian (Exhibits A & B = Survivor & Big Brother) and narcissistic (Exhibits C - ∞ = 99% of reality shows and pop/hip-hop music) culture?
It's not media, technology, business, or government, but the lack of accountability and community that pervade not only these institutions, but our interpersonal relationships as well. We are no longer personally invested in our neighbors, friends, family members, or even ourselves. As much as we would like to recast the parable of the good Samaritan into the parable of the good Samaritan government, or the good Samaritan economy, it doesn't work that way. It only works when we take personal behavior personally, and then surround ourselves with others who share those same principles and will hold us accountable.