All Commentary
Wednesday, March 1, 1995

Cultural Pollution

The Welfare State Buffers People from Any Need to Behave Like Civilized Human Beings

Mr. Bidinotto is a Staff Writer for Reader’s Digest, a long-time contributor to The Freeman , and a lecturer at FEE seminars. Criminal Justice? The Legal System Versus Individual Responsibility, edited by Mr. Bidinotto and published by FEE, is available at $29.95 in cloth and $19.95 in paperback.

The welfare state’s destructive impacts on our economic well-being have been well chronicled by free market economists. But the inverted incentives of socialism also play havoc with the moral character of a society. All of the virtues associated with living a productive life are punished; all the vices associated with an irresponsible existence, rewarded.

The result is cultural pollution.

Market economists have long argued that environmental pollution is caused not by capitalism, but by the absence of property rights and market mechanisms. Similarly, cultural pollution is not caused by capitalism; to a large extent, it is caused by the breakdown of capitalism and the absence of markets. The discipline that comes from market relationships preserves such precious cultural resources as personal character, benevolence, and basic civility. But the welfare state has destroyed that discipline.

Those under age 30 probably can’t remember a time when radio and TV stations refused to air gutter-minded “shock jocks”—or sewer-mouthed cartoon characters—or nihilistic music videos—or freak shows masquerading as “talk programs,” where guests compete in revolting displays of decadence and self-abasement.

There actually was a time in this nation’s not-so-distant past when most kids wouldn’t use foul language around the opposite sex (not to mention at adults), and when those few who did would get their faces slapped. A time when no one would have dared ask the President of the United States what kind of underwear he wore . . . and when no President would have dignified such a question with an answer.

It was a time when students referred to teachers by their surnames, teachers refused to pass kids who hadn’t met minimum standards of achievement, high school graduates could read job applications, and schools issued students more books than condoms. A time when unmarried girls actually felt ashamed to get pregnant—even once—and when unemployed young men actually felt ashamed to apply for welfare. When derelicts didn’t use the sidewalks, nor celebrities the airwaves, as public latrines.

During the past four decades, standards of personal taste, language, behavior, dress, and manners have plunged to loathsome levels. Today, we are awash in a cultural tsunami of vulgarity and incivility. From the street corner to the school classroom, from the movies to MTV, belligerent faces stare back at us in defiant challenge to all that is decent and good, virtuous and valuable—even simply coherent and intelligible.

What is most odious is the fact that the expressions of decadence are so incongruously militant. We behold, daily and in countless forms, bizarre spectacles of self-righteous relativism and crusading nihilism. We are simultaneously revolted and incredulous and bewildered, wondering from what buried cesspool of our national life such pollution has oozed forth.

It would be simplistic to lay blame for this cultural collapse solely at the feet of politics or economics. Ideas rule the world, for better or worse; the militancy of today’s nihilists is largely the product of many decades of intellectual corruption. The concerted, ceaseless assault by generations of academics upon the standards, heroes, values, and philosophical premises of Western civilization have undermined our culture’s foundations and battered its institutions. The barbarians we see around us have been unleashed and empowered by modern intellectuals who—like carriers of some deadly spiritual virus—have sapped our society of its once-vital defenses and immunities.

But to have a broad social impact, ideas good or bad must be transported from the ivory tower into every corner of society. They must be embodied in cultural institutions and transmitted by political programs. So while intellectuals may have opened the faucets, the main pipeline for carrying cultural pollution throughout society has been the welfare state.

The corrupting influences of the welfare state go far beyond the obvious. It isn’t just that the National Endowment for the Arts occasionally subsidizes obscenity, or that billions of dollars in food stamps and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) checks are being cashed in and traded on the streets for drugs and alcohol. It isn’t just that AFDC encourages unwed young women to have children, then remain unwed. lt isn’t just that unearned benefits encourage some people to remain shiftless and lazy.

More broadly, the welfare state also buffers people from any need to behave like civilized human beings.

One of the seldom-recognized benefits of the market system is its great civilizing influence. Socialists often denounce capitalism for promoting “competition, not cooperation.” But in fact, the competitive demands of the marketplace reward cooperation and punish anti-social conduct.

To survive and thrive under laissez-faire capitalism, the individual must learn to produce goods and services valuable to his fellow man. Failing to do so dooms him to a miserable and marginal existence.

But becoming productive entails much more than simply learning a skill or creating a product. Whether employee, employer, or self-employed, each individual in a free market must also learn to market himself, his service, or his product. This, in turn, compels him to present himself and his wares in the best light possible, attracting rather than repelling others. Those who learn to cooperate with others will be rewarded by their fellows and flourish; those who don’t will remain unmarketable and go wanting.

The welfare state short-circuits this learning and maturation process by buffering people from any need to behave themselves. In the marketplace a foul-mouthed boor will be fired from his job. In the welfare state, nothing he says to anyone will stop his government checks from coming. In the marketplace, an ignorant, illiterate, incoherent young woman has few prospects of getting a job. In the welfare state, she can remain just as she is—and the checks will keep on coming. In the marketplace, hanging out as a street-corner tough all day is a short route to homelessness and starvation. In the welfare state, though, such a lout can go home to a public housing project, his rent and food paid for by the same pedestrians he has spent the day menacing and insulting—and then, perhaps, spend his wee hours in a federally-funded midnight basketball league.

By buffering such offensive behavior from the normal punishments that the marketplace would surely administer, the welfare state has allowed and encouraged the proliferation of a nihilistic subculture. This subculture, in turn, has become its own growing market, with an insatiable demand for the lurid and depraved, fed by unscrupulous panderers in the media, entertainment, and corporate America.

A first step in restoring the quality of our social environment, then, would be to plug the poisonous pipeline of the welfare state.