Several years ago, in a discussion on Charles Murray’s book Coming Apart, Ross Douthat included a brilliant observation about what he dubs the “persistent advantage of private virtue“:
Finally, Murray makes a very convincing case . . . for the power of so-called “traditional values” to foster human flourishing even in economic landscapes that aren’t as favorable to less-educated workers as was, say, the aftermath of the Treaty of Detroit. Even acknowledging all the challenges (globalization, the decline of manufacturing, mass low-skilled immigration) that have beset blue collar America over the last thirty years, it is still the case that if you marry the mother or father of your children, take work when you can find it and take pride in what you do, attend church and participate as much as possible in the life of your community, and strive to conduct yourself with honesty and integrity, you are very likely to not only escape material poverty, but more importantly to find happiness in life. This case for the persistent advantages of private virtue does not disprove more purely economic analyses of what’s gone wrong in American life, but it should at the very least complicate them, and suggest a different starting place for discussions of the common good than the ground that most liberals prefer to occupy. This is where “Coming Apart” proves its worth: Even for the many readers who will raise an eyebrow (or two) at Murray’s stringently libertarian prescriptions, the story he tells should be a powerful reminder that societies flourish or fail not only in the debates over how to tax and spend and regulate, but in the harder-to-reach places where culture and economics meet.
One of the reasons, I suspect, that we have interminable debates about “how to tax and spend and regulate” is because such discussions are easy to package for public consumption. The details associated with taxation, spending, and regulation are often complex, but our political preferences can almost always be reduced to the dual choice of support or oppose. The binary structure of both the debates and their outcomes—I win-you lose/you win-I lose—allow them to fit into our popular media. Indeed, if it can’t fit into the 13-minute segments between the “Invest in gold” ads on talk radio then it probably isn’t worth talking about anyway.
This is why over the past decade conservative media outlets have spent countless hours railing about such issues as “earmarks” and the Import-Export Bank, despite the fact that everyone acknowledges that they are largely symbolic. The problem is not that we spend time on issues whose significance is merely symbolic but that in focusing on them we are ignoring issues whose significance—both economically and culturally—are immeasurable.
An even deeper problem, of course, is that our culture doesn’t know how to promote private virtue through America’s favorite pastime—incessant talking. The virtues most in need of promoting tend to flourish in stoic silences, not in the cacophony created by the yammering of talk radio hosts or Twitter. Thirty seconds of praise for the men and women who “take work where they can find it and take pride in what they do” is about all we can take before we start craving the red meat of politics (the kind concerned with partisanship rather than the good of the polis).
The result is that we are faced with a distressing quandary: The need to publicly promote private virtue is paramount; but in twenty-first century America, is such a task even possible?