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Government Against Bourgeois Values

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Government Against Bourgeois Values

Encouraging drug use and other vices risks social catastrophe. April 8, 2021
Politics and law
Economy, finance, and budgets
New York
The Social Order

It seems inevitable that the long-building crusade to legalize the sale and use of marijuana will succeed, as evidenced most recently by New York State legislation to do so. A society of liberty depends mainly on voluntary compliance to maintain the rule of law. There aren’t enough police to monitor every traffic light, for instance. Many have come to believe that banning marijuana use is impractical.

However, state governments are doing more than just acquiescing in the sale of what was once quaintly called grass. In signing New York’s new law, Governor Andrew Cuomo touted its potential to bring in $350 million annually in new excise, licensing, and sales tax revenues. Implicitly, then, we are witnessing the state’s not just accepting drug use but relying on its revenues—and thus encouraging it. Government is now a co-conspirator in vice.

There should be a far more serious discussion about the health risks of legalization, as per Alex Berenson’s excellent work. I share his concerns and have a few of my own. Drug legalization is just the latest in a series of public policies that actively undermine the values forming the basis for a healthy economy and, even more important, for a fulfilling life—what economic historian Deirdre McCloskey unflinchingly terms “bourgeois virtues.”

The mystery of the origins of modern capitalism—and its capacity to lift whole societies out of poverty—has captivated economic theorists at least since Max Weber. To simplify his argument aggressively, Weber attributed capitalism to an attitude that saw the pursuit of financial gain not as the product of greed but of a religiously influenced positive attribute. As British economic historian R.H. Tawney wrote in describing Weber, “What is significant is not the strength of the motive of economic self-interest, which is the commonplace of the ages. . . . It is the change of moral standards.”

In her grand trilogy on capitalism, McCloskey cites such underlying attitudes as prudence and trust—part of the bourgeois project of thinking beyond transient pleasures of the moment (such as those provided by the rush of drug use) as fundamental to economic growth. The novelist Walker Percy also made this point about the connection of values and enterprise in his masterpiece, The Moviegoer. “It is not at all bad being a businessman. There is a spirit of trust and cooperation here. Everyone jokes about such things, but if businessmen were not trusting of each other and could not set their great project going on credit, the country would collapse tomorrow.” Put another way, capitalism both relies on bourgeois virtues and encourages them.

Pot smokers are certainly capable of launching and sustaining business enterprises; that’s not the point. Rather, it’s that bourgeois virtues like prudence and trust are fundamentally focused on the long-term horizon. Don’t spend; invest. Privilege forward-thinking over short-term thrills. As per McCloskey, this is not only the path to economic accumulation but also the best way to pursue happiness. She highlights Amartya Sen’s view of a “‘duality’ in ethics between ‘well-being,’ which is the utilitarian idea of people as pots into which pleasure is dumped, and ‘agency,’” which is “the ability to form goals, commitments, values.” In other words, agency is the route to a form of life satisfaction that transcends short-term thrills.

The idea that such values would eventually succumb to affluence—that capitalism’s bounty would lead to its demise—is not new. Indeed, as Tawney writes, “If capitalism begins as the practical idealism of the aspiring bourgeoisie, it ends, Weber suggests, in an orgy of materialism.”

Neither Weber nor Daniel Bell, however, envisioned the active undermining of bourgeois self-abnegation by government. Yet, more and more, government is actively undermining bourgeois values. As I wrote in Who Killed Civil Society: The Rise of Big Government and Decline of Bourgeois Norms, social-service programs, which grew exponentially starting in the 1960s, implicitly sent the message that social interventions could compensate for poor life decisions, such as teen pregnancy, “juvenile delinquency,” or substance abuse. The emphasis that civil society organizations like the Boy Scouts or 4H placed on formative measures gave way to a government-reinforced emphasis on the reformative.

Government has now gone even further down this path, actively encouraging and relying on revenues from those who choose pleasure over self-improvement and achievement. Whether marijuana truly induces psychosis (and Berenson makes a persuasive case that it does), it’s not likely to sustain the virtues necessary to do one’s homework or, more broadly, to close the achievement gap in education. (I know, marijuana is for “adult use” only. As if.)

Encouraging drug use is only the latest in a string of anti-bourgeois virtue signals from government. In addition to state lotteries, with their manipulative get-rich-quick advertising, we also have state-sanctioned sports betting, which, like marijuana sales, provide revenue for state government. Indeed, in announcing support for permitting sports gambling in New York, Governor Cuomo made clear that the state would sanction whichever “gaming” enterprise pledged to provide the largest share of its revenue to Albany.

Next up is legalized prostitution—a.k.a. “sex work.” New York state senator Julia Salazar has introduced legislation to decriminalize the exchange of sex for money. If that bill were to pass, one could presumably expect prostitutes to be licensed for a fee (for health reasons, no doubt), and perhaps also taxed. Government’s message: that we should accept a society where pleasure-seeking replaces the hard work of building intimacy through knowing and loving another person; and that sex work is just another career option. Perhaps sex workers will save money and pay off college loans to help support later STEM careers—but at what cost, psychologically, to themselves and their “customers”?

The list of public policies undermining bourgeois virtues goes on—and arguably includes stimulus checks (a.k.a. “stimmies”), based on the belief that income matters above all in ensuring comfort and joy. As McCloskey writes in The Bourgeois Virtues, “Whatever happiness of identity a painter earns may be measured by the income he gives up. But that does not make the happiness the same thing as income. The happiness is comparable to the happiness of identity a skillful truck driver earns or a skillful tennis player, whether poorly or well paid.” Any work, in other words, can offer the fulfillment either of a job well done or of something leading to a job one would prefer. A check in the mail can pay for groceries, but it cannot substitute for such fulfillment.

One fears that simple income transfers in the name of reducing inequality will instead increase it. Middle-class parents will continue to steer their children away from what we once called vice, even as others are lured into it. (Notably, the New York State bill, like a similar one in Massachusetts, allows for localities to opt out of permitting the retail sale of pot and pot products; look to higher-income zip codes to do so.) This is no happy libertarian outcome. Parents and responsible adults who succeed in guiding their children toward positive choices will do so only at the cost of also teaching them to discount messages and policies promulgated by government.

None of this, of course, is to say that drug use, gambling, and prostitution would disappear if they were not permitted by law. Rather, it is to question the wisdom of government both encouraging them and relying on the tax revenue they generate. It was not so long ago that government urged us to “just say no” to drugs. It may not have been an effective effort, but that doesn’t mean that government should encourage us to just say yes.

Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

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