In a recent column, David Brooks wades into the debate on the huge gaps in income and opportunity that have arisen in the United States. He focuses on the plight of the poor, and his argument is essentially that the problem is not so much money and policies as norms and virtues.

In other words, he blames the poor for their own plight, and Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig immediately pounces. She argues, quite persuasively, that the moral values of the poor do not differ from the moral values of the rich, and that what keeps the poor down is daily grind of poverty and its soul-destroying burden. On this point, Paul Krugman is in complete agreement—he had noted for a while that social dysfunction can be traced to collapse in decent jobs rather than a collapse in virtue.

But I think that Brooks nonetheless makes a good observation. The cause of much of our social and economic malaise is indeed a breakdown in social norms, the habituation of some wholly unvirtuous behavior. He’s right that we need to look at this through the lens of virtue ethics, especially when he asks core questions like: are you living for short-term pleasure or long-term good?

The only problem is, Brooks singles out the poor, when the real culprits are the rich. The real breakdown in social norms over the past few decades has come from the top.

During the postwar era in the United States, there was a fair amount of solidarity between capital and labor. Unions were strong and respected, and the fruits of higher productivity were broadly shared. Top income tax rates were high, and it was considered unseemly for top executive compensation to soar to stratospheric levels. Some of this undoubtedly reflects a strong sense of social solidarity that came out of the war and the Great Depression. And it was a model that worked—this was a period of strong economic growth, low inequality, little instability, and firm social cohesion.

But the social norms underpinned this model shifted dramatically during the libertarian revival of the late 1970s and early 1980s, heralded by the rise of Reagan. Now, it became acceptable to put self-interest above social solidarity. Top tax rates were cut, unions were attacked, and the financial sector was unleashed. It became acceptable to push wages to rock bottom simply to maximize shareholder returns and top executive compensation. It became acceptable to scrape the bottom of the barrel in terms of ethical standards to make a quick buck. It became acceptable to spend billions in lobbying for your own short term interest, while demonizing the poor, and fighting for your extra tax cut to come from their extra benefit. And it became acceptable to insist on the God-given right to perpetual pollution, planet be damned.

It’s really hard to understand any of this without resorting to virtue ethics. In Ill Fares the Land, the remarkable manifesto written before his untimely death, Tony Judt makes a similar point:

“We are all children of the Greeks. We intuitively grasp the need for a sense of moral direction.. Natural Aristotelians, we assume that a just society is one in which justice is habitually practiced; a good society one in which people behave well. For Aristotle and his successors, the substance of justice or goodness was as much a function of convention as of definition.. The attractions of a ‘reasonable’ level of wealth, an ‘acceptable’ compromise, a just or good resolution was self-evident. The avoidance of extremes was a moral virtue in its own right, as well as a condition of political stability. However, the idea of moderation – so familiar to generations of moralists – is difficult to articulate today. Big is not always better, more is not always desirable; but we are discouraged from expressing the thought.

One source of our confusion may be a blurring of the distinction between law and justice. In the US especially, so long as a practice is not illegal we find it hard to define its shortcomings. The notion of ‘prudence’ eludes us: the idea that it is imprudent for Goldman Sachs to distribute billions of dollars in bonuses less than a year after benefitting from taxpayer largesse would have been self-evident to men of the Scottish Enlightenment, just as it would to the classical philosophers. ‘Imprudence’ in this respect would have been as reprehensible as financial chicanery: not least for the risks to which it exposed the community at large”.

It would be far better for David Brooks to blame the real culprits, rather than scapegoating the poor. 

Anthony Annett is a climate change and sustainable development advisor at the Center for Sustainable Development - Earth Institute at Columbia University and in this position is affiliated with Religions for Peace.

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