Capitalism and Western Civilization: Immaterial Resources

William H. Young

On January 10, 2012, the White House released a report by the U. S. Department of Education, A Crucible Moment, which identified a new mission that the Obama administration and the Association of American Colleges and Universities have assigned to higher education: “to eliminate persistent inequalities, especially those in the United States determined by income and race.” The academic and political left focus almost exclusively on the redistribution of income or wealth—material resources—to rectify inequality through social justice. But it is the lack of immaterial resources, and the conduct and skills they generate, especially among our youth, which is a principal determinant of inequality in America.  Such resources need to be fostered and imbued by parenting, civil society, and education. 

What are these immaterial resources? Robert William Fogel, winner of the 1993 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences and professor at the University of Chicago, Booth School of Business, defines them in The Fourth Great Awakening and the Future of Egalitarianism (2000). They include: a sense of purpose; a vision of opportunity; a sense of the mainstream of work and life; a strong family ethic; a sense of community; a sense of discipline; the capacity to concentrate and focus one’s efforts; a capacity to resist the lure of hedonism; a capacity for self-education; a thirst for knowledge; an appreciation for quality; and self-esteem from assimilation of the above traits and achievement.

In the early twentieth century, Fogel argues, the Social Gospel and Progressive movements 

held that cultural crises could be resolved by raising incomes…That theory has been given a long trial and has turned out to be incorrect….Despite the sharp rise in incomes, especially at the low end of the income distribution, the moral crisis of the cities remains unresolved….The sharpest increases in indicators of moral decay came after, not before, the ‘war against poverty’ of the 1960s and 1970s…. 

The problems…that were of great concern to the Social Gospelers, such as drug addiction, pregnancy among single teenage girls, rape, the physical abuse of women and children, broken families, and violent teenage death…are more severe today than they were a century ago.

Although the average real income of the bottom fifth of the population has multiplied by some twenty-fold since 1890, several times more than that realized by the rest of the population, the national cultural crisis that precipitated the Social Gospel movement remains largely unresolved.

Postmodern multiculturalism has made that crisis worse. “Diversity” ideology focuses on one’s identity as a member of a group, which is the least important thing about us and results in divisiveness, not community. (See my previous article Diversity) The pedagogy of awarding self-esteem robs individuals of the motivation to improve themselves through will and achievement. Relativism—nothing is right or wrong, good or bad— subverts the quality of excellence. Gender feminism and progressivism have substituted dubious social science and the welfare state for the family as developers of the faculties of children, emasculating the family ethic of parental responsibility to foster immaterial assets. Gender feminism’s hostility to marriage led to single-motherhood, which often yields children most lacking in such assets. (See my article Marriage and Family

Ironically, postmodern multiculturalism most undermines individual success in the economic realm not by its contempt for capitalism—drawn from cultural Marxism—but by the beliefs, summarized below, it has ingrained in our elites and students—rather than the immaterial resources needed in the mainstream of work. The well-being of ascriptive groups is valued over the community ethos. Hierarchy is to be based on diversity, not merit. Group preferences, not the discipline of competition, are the basis for advancement. Equality replaces efficiency; entitlement replaces exchange; and rights replace reciprocity. Individual competence, enhancing community performance, is supplanted by group sharing.

Together, progressivism and postmodern multiculturalism have enervated the immaterial resources required by individuals to acquire the skills necessary to compete in the marketplace. (See my articles Competency, Jobs, and Education) Income inequality among groups of workers of similar sex, age, and schooling is explained by differences in their learned skills. The immaterial resources and skills they lack make them unequal and unable to compete for job opportunities that are going begging. 

Mark Bauerlein, professor of English at Emory University, highlights, in The Dumbest Generation (2008), the adverse influence of uses of social media technology, contributing to the lack of immaterial resources among our youth.

Late-teens and early twenty-somethings stand at a delicate threshold that marks the most important intellectual growth of their life….If it doesn’t happen in high school, in college, and in the home at this time, it probably never will….The Digital Age has embroiled the young in a swirl of social groupings and contests, and it threatens their intellectual development….

Young Americans today are no more learned or skillful than their predecessors… except in the materials of youth culture….Instead of opening young American minds to the stores of civilization and science and politics, technology has contracted their horizons to themselves and the social scene around them….

They have all the advantages of modernity and democracy, but when the gifts of life lead to social joys, not intellectual labor, the minds of the young plateau at age 18. This is happening all around us. The fonts of knowledge are everywhere, but the rising generation is camped in the desert, passing stories, pictures, tunes, and texts back and forth, living off the thrill of peer attention. Meanwhile, their intellects refuse the civic and cultural heritage that has made us what we are up to now….

The unique failings of the Dumbest Generation don’t originate in the classroom…They stem from the home, social, and leisure lives of young Americans….American teens are drowning in their own ignorance and a-literacy.

Immersion in social media has replaced a labor ethic for the workplace.

The Protestant (Puritan) ethic of Western civilization, esteeming literacy, thrift, self-reliance, and diligent personal effort, inculcated the immaterial resources that were the foundation of the individual’s path to economic mobility in America, leading to membership in the middle class and above. The Protestant ethic included self-mastery over hedonism and self-indulgence and a strong work ethic. It venerated knowledge and the dignity of human labor, giving life meaningful structure. (See my article Protestant Ethic)

But in the American academy of the 1960s, the Protestant ethic became a specific target for assault. Herbert Marcuse and the Frankfurt School dismissed the “patriarchal compulsion to work” as serving the interests of class society and led the turn to sexual liberation and expressive individualism. Epicurean self-regard replaced Emersonian self-reliance.

In the 1950s and early 1960s, psychoanalysis was transformed into a cult of personal fulfillment to be achieved through the therapeutic society. Ironically, Sigmund Freud had earlier dismissed such cultural determinism, denouncing those who “have picked out a few cultural overtones from the symphony of life and have once more failed to hear the mighty and primordial melody of the instincts.”

Redistributing income to the disadvantaged and throwing money at sending everyone to college fails to address, and cannot solve, a root cause of our societal difficulties: inadequate nurture of individuals to enable self-realization and economic success. Rather, what is needed is the restoration of a modern version of the Protestant ethic, to instill Fogel’s immaterial resources in those in need—especially our boys. This must be done privately—by neither government nor the market—but by family, civil society, and religion, and especially by our upper-middle-class elites.

The academy’s mission should be the development of immaterial resources in our youth rather than allocation of material resources and social justice. It should reject Marcuse’s destructive path of cultural Marxism and focus once again on the values of the Protestant ethic, enabling college-educated elites to advance that ethic in society and culture. This is particularly important for our harder economic times and those looming ahead. And colleges and universities should once again teach the wisdom of Western civilization and American history (as recommended by NAS) as elements of the immaterial resources necessary to achieve individual prosperity within our capitalist economic system.

Next week’s article will begin a series on contemporary issues, governance, and the academy.

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This is one of a series of occasional articles applying the lessons of Western civilization to contemporary issues relevant to the academy.

The Honorable William H. Young was appointed by President George H. W. Bush to be Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy and served in that position from November 1989 to January 1993. He is the author of Ordering America: Fulfilling the Ideals of Western Civilization (2010) and Centering America: Resurrecting the Local Progressive Ideal (2002).

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