An Unjustifiably Long Reply to Peggy Noonan’s “Après le Déluge, What?”

These days I usually do not read Peggy Noonan’s column, at least not since I abandoned my heavy-petting relationship with libertarian conservatism in the mid-1990s. However, the title of her August 13, 2011 column in the Wall Street Journal’s online edition caught my eye. It seemed familiar. I then realized it was similar to a phrase I had heard recently on an episode of the animated series “American Dad.”

Roger, the extraterrestrial living with the main character and his family, says as he leaves the house one day, “Apres moi, le deluge,” adding, “That’s what Andrew Cunanan wrote in his high school yearbook.”

I wonder how many people like me had to Google this obscure reference.

If you were to Google it, you would find two things. The first is that Andrew Cunanan, a disturbed 27 year old who shot Gianni Versace and four others in 1997, chose this phrase to appear under his yearbook picture. The second thing you would learn is that the origin of the phrase is attributed to Louis XV of France (1710-1774), which seems a prescient phrasing in light of what happened on and after July 14, 1789.

What does the phrase mean? It has been translated as “After me, disaster.” A literal translation might be “After me, the flood.” This is probably a reference to the original “deluge” which you can read about in Genesis 6 through 9. Water in the form of a flood or the ocean symbolizes chaos. Some have suggested that Louis may have been commenting on the inability of the next generation to maintain the gloire of the French monarchy. However, it may be that what Louis really meant was that whatever happened to the world after he died would be none of his affair.

This leads us back to Peggy Noonan and her problematic analysis of the recent violence in the UK. The problem with her analysis begins in the first paragraph when she talks about the “affluence of the past 40 years” and her assertion that we are a “nation of travelers.” Both assertions are hard to swallow. The first seems obviated by the economic assault on the middle class over the last forty years, a problem that will only grow worse if we continue on our present trajectory. The latter assertion is also a little hard to swallow considering that only 37% of Americans actually have a passport, which is required to leave and re-enter the United States. The number was 20% prior to September 11, 2001, but with the advent of the “war on terror” people now need a passport to get back into the States when traveling from Mexico and Canada. (I traveled several times without a passport and prior to September 11, 2001 to both Mexico and Canada.)

The nitpicking of Ms. Noonan’s underlying premises about American society will not address the fundamental flaw in her column. These false premises only serve to illustrate how detached Ms. Noonan and her fellow conservatives are from the struggles of everyday working people. They believe, all evidence to the contrary, that the only things that prevent people from being wealthy is hard work and sheer gumption. It is this conviction that informs their moral view of the world, which is where Ms. Noonan and all her conservative pals get it wrong.

In her column she says that the British press has blamed the violence in the UK on the young’s “greed” and “selfishness,” their “respect and even lust for violence, and a lack of moral grounding.” She writes that “conscienceless predators preyed upon the weak,” and this gets us to the nub of her argument, which she reveals toward the end of her column.

It is not income inequality, lack of employment, austerity measures by the government, a reduction of educational programs traditionally meant to give the poor and middling classes a leg up. No, it is none of those things. It is rather the overindulged welfare class that has perpetuated single-parent homes, and directly given the rise to a race of young, amoral super-predators.

Herein is what makes Ms. Noonan’s column problematic. She identifies the lack of moral direction in society as the symptom of a larger disease, i.e., the welfare state. However, the lack of moral direction within Western society is not a symptom, it is the disease.

Now, to argue that a lack of moral clarity is the source of Western society’s problems is not to maintain that all we need is more marriage and a willingness to get off the dole. The reason this easy answer will not work is because people are far more complicated than the economic decisions they make. Morality simply cannot be divorced from the economic, political, and social choices we make. This is why conservatives like P. J. O’Rourke tend to unfairly malign Thorstein Veblen’s ideas about economic consumption. These economic libertarians accept the fundamental notion that economics can be divorced from the ego—an assertion challenged each day in the market. Read Andrew Sorkin’s account of the fall of Lehman Brothers in Too Big to Fail (2009) and you will come away certain that had Richard Fuld been less ego-driven his company might still exist. The “rational economic man” does not exist, which makes a discussion about morality that much more crucial.

The best account I have yet read regarding the moral challenges of modern society is Michael J. Sandel’s Justice: What is the Right Thing to Do? (2009). Based on a course he has taught for thirty years at Harvard, this book explores the ethical challenges associated with utilitarian and libertarian philosophies, both of which can become dangerous when divorced from the primary end (telos) of morality. Sandel argues that we cannot determine what we should do until we have determined what outcome we want to achieve, and this is not as easy as it sometimes seems, since the end does not always justify the means. In short, moral choices should be difficult, and they are always complicated. A sure sign that someone has not thought through their moral views is that they think changing one thing will yield innumerable benefits, that it is a panacea for all that ails us.

This is why Ms. Noonan’s moral argument falls flat. She suggests that it is the moral bankruptcy of the welfare state that has yielded a generation which thinks itself entitled to a certain way of life. She does this while ignoring the role that excessive individualism, free-market capitalism, and advertising, has played in creating this environment. The work of Daniel Bell, Christopher Lasch, Neil Postman, and others, has clearly shown that the reason for our lack of moral direction and the breakdown of our communities has more to do with our modern, atomistic and capitalist society than it does with any loss of traditional morality.

It is with respect to morality, contrary to what Ms. Noonan says, that the churches of America have failed young people the most. The modern American church has more in common with the average corporation than it does with the man who drove money changers from his father’s temple. Of course, this hippy version of Jesus is ignored by most nominal American Christians, especially when Jesus talks about giving till it hurts and expecting nothing in return. (Matthew 5:40) They prefer the parable about the talents because it accords with their acquisitive natures, and gives them ammunition against the poor and shiftless. (Matthew 25:14-30)

The recent animus directed here in the States at the working poor, unions, government employees, etc., proves the central fact that the economic system we have built rewards greed and selfishness. When was the last time a CEO received a $15 million bonus for giving a substantial portion of the company’s profits to charity, for raising the wages of company workers, or for paying a substantial portion of the company profits in taxes? The truth is that we live in a society that is largely unjust, not just because income is ill-distributed, but because the game of modern capitalism is rigged to favor those who already own everything.

This is why simplistic notions of morality will not do, because they are rooted in the conviction that one should do the right thing no matter what the circumstance and no matter what the end (telos). This Kantian approach to morality is great for children, but it will not work for the modern person who understands that arriving at moral convictions is a much more complex and holistic process than simply accepting a priori dictates derived from the Decalogue or some other ancient revelation.

For example, one could argue that Britain’s choice to open its doors to immigrants played a role in the recent violence in the UK. This is not meant to imply that Britain should adopt a xenophobic immigration policy. It is to point out that sometimes nations have to make hard moral decisions. When times are good it is an easy decision to let immigrants come in and supply the economy with unskilled, lower-waged workers. However, when things get tough nations cannot just get rid of these workers, especially if they are legal immigrants who have to be serviced by the existing welfare state. This creates a certain amount of animosity among already hard-hit natives who see their taxes going to an underclass with little hope of escaping their poverty, and who are “not like us.”

What makes this situation more complicated is that politicians cannot stand idly by while prices rise because the country lacks an adequate supply of unskilled labor. The higher price of labor will eventually make its way to the services and products that the middle class buy, reducing the value of their own wages, which might not rise as fast. Of course, there might be other ways to address this problem such as discouraging the “de-skilling” of work which is so advantageous to large corporations, but this would likely be opposed by those who believe the market always knows best.

We cannot go into all these different problems. It would take a book-length treatment to deal with questions of international trade, capital flows, etc. However, the illustration of immigration policy above should convince most of the following general assertions: 1) things are complicated, 2) individuals, communities, and nation states should act morally, and 3) the moral choices we make should always be with an eye to the end (telos).

In all these respects Ms. Noonan’s analysis of the UK riots are found wanting. The only thing she proves is that the simplistic solutions of the right are still alive and kicking.

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