BY DAVID MIN
Recently, an excellent editorial was written by John Balzar in the L.A. Times, which I believe everyone, especially law students, should read. Superficially, the piece was about the collapse of Enron. But more importantly, it was about the collapse of the American ethic.
Balzar essentially argued that the Enron collapse was in large part a product of the new American value system, which he described as “about winning at any price — not just winning but trouncing — about seeing what you can get away with. … Awhile back, we lost sight of the principle that hard work, diligence and some luck made the man.”
In other words, the results of Enron were not surprising in a society that basically promotes the idea that you should do whatever you can to get ahead, unless you get caught — in which case, you should apologize and try again. And in a country where increasingly larger numbers of Americans seemingly defend the fact that an increasingly larger number of Fortune 500 companies pay no taxes, and where the percentage of Americans who believe it’s OK to cheat on their own taxes has nearly doubled in the last five years, this really shouldn’t be surprising to any of us.
And this is where I get partisan. The Right, for what seems like forever, has been decrying the loss of American values, the corruption of American morals. And yet, if we’re going to point fingers, I’d have to point mine directly at certain segments of the new Right. The rise in laissez-faire ideology, libertarianism, if you will, has led, quite predictably, to a corresponding rise in the hyper-individualism that, more than anything else, threatens the fabric of Americanism. What is it to be American? I don’t pretend to have the answer to this. But I’d aver, as strongly as anything else I believe in, that to be an American, to be a democrat, implies that you must share a sense of community with other Americans. In this respect, I agree with the Federalist Society and their espoused ideas. Alternatively, however, if you believe that the “goal” of life is to get ahead, and screw-all to your neighbors, your colleagues, your fellow-countrymen — then almost definitionally, you are corroding the basis of American community.
This is not meant to be a denouncement of libertarian political or social ideology, such as propounded by Hayek and the like; that’s a subject for another debate. This is absolutely meant to be a denouncement of the infection of these political ideas into the realm of personal morality, a condemnation of the Ayn-Randian idea that it is morally laudable to be selfish, uncaring and rude, so long as you are creating economic value for yourself. (Incidentally, does anyone else find it fitting that the most devout followers of Rand, much like the characters in her books, tend to be one-dimensional and intellectually turgid? Really, they share an uncanny resemblance, don’t they? The next time you talk to someone who fits in this category, tell him he reminds you of Howard Roarke — both of you will walk away smiling.) This is what I call the “me-first” attitude, the attitude that says that it’s better to take than to share, that says you should do whatever you can to benefit yourself, without any mitigation or reservation, and this attitude is undermining the foundation of our American democracy. Witness President Bush proclaiming in the wake of 9/11 that it was our patriotic duty, not to sacrifice, but to shop. Or witness the driver who cuts you off to beat you to a parking space you were waiting for. These are symptoms of a disease rooted in the “me-first” philosophy that is supplanting traditional mores in American society. Every other moral philosophy, whether Judeo-Christian or Confucian, Kantian or Aristotelian, has embraced the idea of community and empathy. The “me-first” ethos lies alone in this respect.
Quite simply, if everyone believes that their goal in life is to be selfish in a purely economic sense (and that everything falls under the realm of economics, as per Judge Posner), indeed, believes that they are morally compelled to act according to this ideal, then our society is a much worse one as a result. If you don’t believe this, ask yourself what characteristics you favor or disfavor in your friends: Would you want as a friend someone who viewed the world in a way where he should do everything he can to get ahead, including screw you if it added the most long-term gain? And if your answer is no (if it’s yes, then this column is obviously not directed at you), you might consider asking yourself why it might be acceptable for this attitude to be desirable in your fellow countrymen and women.
Perhaps this makes me a rube, a naïf if you will. But I’ll admit that I’m partial to the person who still believes in the concept of good manners, in the idea of “love thy neighbor.” Forget about political correctness and socially imposed mores. I’m willing to grant that unadulterated Millianism, even Hayekism, may be the norm in today’s political environment. Yes, this country was founded and has thrived in large part on the idea of individual liberties, and, yes, this includes the right to be cruel, duplicitous, boorish and uncompassionate. But while we should absolutely be defending the right to be, in sum, a jerk, we should categorically be rejecting the inculcation of these traits as personal virtues.
For John Balzar’s article on Enron see: http://latimes.com/news/opinion/ commentary/la-000004495jan18.story.