The Economics of Morality

There has been much discussion about the effect of income levels on moral behavior. Among the high socio-economic strata, the debate seems to have emerged in a judgmental, narcissistic opposition to "the other" -- the ones who haven't lived up to a moral ideal. "The other" encompasses family but also community, the nation and the plight of the less fortunate ones in our society. Humanity has always been bedeviled by tribal conflict between "me/mine" and the common good. But any attempt to decouple moral behavior from economic plight seems to create an opposition between the privileged, morally superior observer and those struggling to survive by bending rules.

The question ultimately is why America's moral standards seem to have fallen so far. Drug and alcohol abuse remains widespread. The two-parent nuclear family seems to be quickly disappearing. And social unrest has emerged as a warning sign of social disintegration, from Ferguson to Zuccotti Park. Alongside these trends: the quality of education and graduation rates have declined and good jobs are scarce and a good many available jobs go unfilled because of lack of qualified applicants. By now all serious economists and social scientists and pundits agree on the vast chasm of inequality between some 20 percent plus of wealthier Americans and the rest of America.

Opportunity has been disappearing for all but the most fortunate Americans. Yes, life is challenging in the less affluent America, but, unlike in the Depression, those who are struggling with real hardship lack a common sense of the "good," the hope and patience that got people through hard times in the past. During the Great Depression of the 1930's people seemed to have more grit. They helped one another; families protected their young and sacrificed themselves for the common good of the family and the community. So what's different this time?

The economist Charles Murray puts the blame on entitlements. People don't have the motivation to work anymore, he claims. Years of government handouts have corrupted the will to work diminishing self-esteem and, as a consequence, all moral values have broken down. Ross Douthat claims categorically that there's no relationship between income inequality and these eroded values. Other economists and social scientists, Robert Putman among them, see a deep connection between economic inequality and this emerging tragic moral landscape. I am squarely in this camp. What we have is not just the shrinking of opportunity, but the disappearance of hope. There is an almost punitive lack of opportunity in this lower income society. The American Dream of being the best one can be is disappearing--and what's also disappearing is the opportunity to be anyone at all, in terms of earning power. The belief in a better life for one's children and future generations is nearly gone. Hopelessness, anger and apathy have taken its place.

The solutions are there to be had. Once we accept these problems as part of our own social responsibility, the solutions will open up. Those who aren't looking for an answer will never find it. We have to realize it's up to us each of us to make life better for everyone in this country. But once again it takes the will for most of us across all segments of this amazing country to get involved, to want all of us in America to thrive. We can revive the light of goodness by living in it ourselves, showing the way for others. Only with that greater awareness can we enlist the powerful forces at our disposal to help create jobs, to improve our education to provide efficient and truly responsible governments, to train and retrain skills and more. All this to keep folks motivated, working, to improve self-esteem and reconnect with personal responsibility for ourselves, our families, our communities and our nation. With economic revival will come, as well, a moral awakening.

Peter Georgescu is the author of The Constant Choice. He can be found at Good Reads.