We have only to visit almost any major city in the free world today to find evidence of dramatic cultural decay on numerous fronts: malls dripping with images of sensuality and hedonism; girls from respectable, law-abiding families dropped off at school dressed like prostitutes; boys sitting beside them in class able to pull up a world of pornography on their smartphones, and often doing so; chronically high divorce rates; a plummeting number of homes with the biological father present; commercials telling you, implicitly or explicitly, to “Obey Your Thirst”; recreational drug abuse—on and on we could go.
The challenge extends even to what many of us would characterize as “good homes.” In place of the warm-toned ideal of the Norman Rockwell family gathered around the Thanksgiving table, saying grace, genuinely savoring the meal, and laughing and talking together, many of us today have moved the affair into the living room to eat over a commercial-laced football game while simultaneously surfing the web on as many smartphones as there are individuals in the room. Then, when the game is over, it’s off to the mall for a Thursday evening head start on the Black Friday shopping frenzy.
The signs of cultural decay are various. Some are subtle and aesthetic, others shocking and difficult to ignore. But taken together, they invite the question: Why? That is, why is Western culture decaying in certain crucial ways? What’s driving it?
If Capitalism Is to Blame, What’s the Solution?
Many people, including some social conservatives, blame global free market capitalism. According to this view, the West wandered into a cultural wasteland because it embraced a system based on greed, mindless efficiency, unbridled production, and restless consumption.
U.S. poet and essayist Wendell Berry, for instance, suggests that capitalism’s obsession with radical individualism and economies of scale leads it to break up communities and families, uprooting them from supportive relational networks, and driving them from small towns into large cities where they lose contact with the natural world, their loved ones, and, eventually, themselves.
If capitalism is the primary culprit for cultural decay, as some suggest, an obvious response would be to discard capitalism and opt for a highly planned economy, in which the government tames the people’s greed through periodic and aggressive redistribution and, in the more extreme scenario, owns or controls the means of production.
This approach has a superficial plausibility about it: get ordinary people out of the sordid business of accumulating wealth and all that endless shopping and selling, and find some conscientious civil servants in government to take care of dividing up the wealth equitably, freeing up the rest of us to focus on putting in a good day’s work, raising our families, and enjoying a little leisure time.
An enticingly simple solution. Unfortunately, it has failed everywhere it has been tried. Whether in Russia, Eastern Europe, or other parts of the world, it has tended to fuel political corruption and crowd out civil institutions. It also has tended to replace an ownership culture with a rental culture, characterized by a declining sense of personal responsibility. The results were accelerated cultural decay, not cultural renewal.
Proposed Solutions Have Consequences
Certainly, economic structures and political policies have an influence on culture; but as we try to diagnose the causes of cultural decay in the societies of the West, from the freest to the most centrally planned, we should keep in mind the old truism that ideas have consequences. That truth holds for ideas both in and beyond economics.
Keeping that in mind can help steer one around the tendency to champion a deracinated form of freedom. And it can steer one around the facile logical progression from encountering cultural decay around us, noting that this is going on in a relatively free economy, and blaming the free economy.
Having steered around this fallacious logical chain, we’re better situated to recognize the abundant evidence for something that should be commonsensical: planned economies that spend lavishly to protect people from the consequences of bad decisions accelerate cultural decay.
Why Culture Needs Both Capitalism and Christianity
Capitalism needs the prophetic voices of its best cultural critics; but most of all, capitalism needs the theological soil from which it sprang—a Judeo-Christian understanding that recognizes human agency and responsibility, that values human dignity and human freedom, that takes account of both human evil and the creative power of humans made in the image of the creator—who is the ultimate ground of the good, the true, and the beautiful.
That vision tells us that we are called to be creative, to pursue excellence, and to serve as good stewards of a good creation, not to junk it up with cheap and tacky ephemera or to seek for significance through unbridled consumption. It also tutors us to recognize that the material realm is neither inherently evil nor the greatest good. This, in turn, helps us avoid two destructive extremes: on the one hand, old-style socialism’s disdain for material beauty, and on the other, the hedonism of consumerism.
What’s driving the cultural decay around us isn’t economic freedom; it’s a secular and essentially materialistic worldview that marginalizes or even denies the divine, a denial that manifests itself in a stream of architecture, art, literature, film, and music that trumpets nihilism over truth, goodness, and beauty.
By missing the real culprit, the cultural critics of economic freedom make matters worse twice over. They squander their energies that would be better spent battling the real culprit—false ideas about the nature of the human person. And they feed what actually accelerates cultural decay—the Leviathan state.
Editor’s Note: This article contains excerpts from Jonathan Witt’s chapter in IFWE’s latest book, Counting the Cost: Christian Perspectives on Capitalism. Check out the book to read his full argument!
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