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Volume 15, Number 1
Slouching Towards Statism
by Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr.
Which is a greater cause of cultural and moral decline: the private sector or the government? Asked another way, which is doing more to promote a return to civilized social norms: the market or the central state? The answer highlights a dividing line between left and right.
Robert Bork's book Slouching Towards Gomorrah provokes this query. He chronicles a dizzy array of depressing cultural data that even left-liberals can't ignore. His thesis is that civilization is slipping through our fingers, and he's probably right. However, his suggestions for change require new forms of government intervention, a grave error that dooms his analysis.
Bork has confused the cause with the cure. It's government policy, not the private sector, that has caused social collapse by politicizing culture in the first place. Whether it's fostering welfarism, backing ugly art and music, punishing society's natural elites with income and inheritance taxes, or shortening time horizons through persistent inflation, the government has debased tastes, subsidized moral squalor, and dumbed down social norms.
Before we put government in charge of cultural uplift, consider that prototype of government social and cultural hegemony: the military base. Once seen as model communities of discipline and moral high standards, bases have recently been rocked by revelations of widespread sexual impropriety. This hardly surprises anyone who's spent time in or around the military.
Young people are put in distant places where they face no supervision from family or an organic community. They have little work to do and an abundance of discretionary income. Their housing, food, medical care, and clothing are provided at no charge by the government. Nobody need plan, for example, to come up with next month's rent.
The grayness and regimentation of the military base masks a deep debasement. Illegal drug use is rampant, on and off the base, and has long involved more than half of the enlisted men (recent declines in reported drug use measure only a rise in dishonesty). Alcoholism is more than double civilian levels. Tattooing is normal, gambling is rampant, and in its discount stores, the U.S. military is the biggest purveyor of pornography in the world.
Go to any military base in the country and look at the kinds of outlying enterprises taxpayers unwittingly support. Once-nice communities have been turned into magnets for nude dancing, prostitution, and every manner of sexual profiteering.
Look at Georgia's Fort Benning. Apart from the military, the area is populated by traditional people with traditional morals. Yet along the main drag, you pass dozens of brightly lit sex parlors, an alarming sight in the Deep South. The military here is a cultural cancer that lives off the taxpayer. It's no surprise that the military is riddled with sexual abuse: in their off-hours, these guys are feeding our tax dollars to naked performers. It reflects the absence of chivalry inherent in all government operations.
Other businesses popular around military bases are pawn shops and the sort of car dealers that cater to people who don't pay their debts. That reflects another dirty secret of the military: live-for-the-moment attitudes and bad credit are typical, as in any welfare culture.
Relieved of the burdens of making themselves productive, exercising economic choices, or managing finances, the troops in these bases tend to collapse into a state-of-nature barbarism, despite the best efforts of a few officers.
Conservatives like Bork, who complain about the culture, should take notice of this, but as avid supporters of the warfare state, they carefully avert their eyes.
Now consider the other side of the question: can the private sector rescue us from a Borkian fate? Left-liberals like to cite Disney to show that free enterprise is also a social menace. They say Disney preys on kids voracious material appetites, wrecks and trivializes classic literature, and erects enormous monuments to the indulgence of pleasure.
There's no need to defend Disney's more recent animated movies (let alone those released under subsidiary labels). For example, the pagan environmentalism and anti-European propaganda of Pocahontas is unbearable for anyone who knows economics or history. Nobody claimed the private sector produces only what is beautiful and true.
However tacky some of Disney's products are, remember this: the company has no power of its own. It only profits when it succeeds in persuading the buying public to purchase its products. The tastes of the consuming public are the driving force behind every product the company produces, and not the reverse. If people decided not to buy, Disney's market power would instantly collapse.
Moreover, the real triumph of Disney has nothing to do with its movies. This corporation, founded by a hard-core believer in free markets, and a cultural reactionary to boot, has demonstrated new frontiers of private-property creativity. It has erected entire communities of perfect order and freedom organized on the principles of free enterprise.
Disney World is 45 square miles, an area the size of San Francisco. The rides are the least interesting part. Disney World contains upwards of 300 retail stores, plus nature preserves, streams and lakes, nature trails, recreation areas, yacht clubs, resorts, beach clubs, golf courses, office space, and campsites. There are 12,000 rooms available for rent, and total employment is 35,000, most of them young people who behave themselves because they have to.
Infrastructure like roads and bridges are entirely private, as are police services, fire protection, sewage, and trash disposal. Despite having no taxes or mandates, and being entirely free from outside zoning, this massive park is arguably the best "governed" place on earth. There is no crime, no vandalism, and no sexual profiteering. There are no gangs, no slums, no homeless bums, no panhandlers, and no loiterers. Because it is private, every inch is cared for.
If you re looking to restore the old days of charming architecture and safe, clean streets, look to the Disney-created town of Celebration, Florida. Again, it is entirely private. Ten minutes south of the Magic Kingdom, it is a bustling place that will soon be home to 20,000 people. New houses are grabbed up instantly, as are spots in the new private school. There's no cultural rot here. How interesting that it's become the target of left-wing attacks for "artificiality."
The economics literature is always fretting about "public goods" that markets supposedly can't produce, including police protection and infrastructure. Nonsense, said Disney, and proceeded to demonstrate how orderly a micro-society can be when there's no government to push property owners around.
Indeed, Disney World points the way towards solving most of our social and cultural troubles: put more property in private hands. It has even shown us how the immigration problem can be handled. Disney World attracts 30 million visitors per year without disruption.
As economist Fred Foldvary points out, Disney shows that the less government intervenes, the more private enterprise can satisfy human wants; supposed "public goods" are no exception.
The stark contrast between the ordered liberty of Disney World and the deep corruption of the military base is no accident. These two communities demonstrate, in contrasting microcosms, the difference between the market's means of social organization and the government's.
Yet micro-secessionism isn't the only way the market overcomes cultural disintegration. Wal-Mart is hated by the left, but it too has become a source of cultural uplift. As the nation's largest distributor of compact discs, it supervises everything that appears on its shelves. Producers must take out degrading lyrics, electronically mask dirty words, and supply clean cover art. This approach is not for everyone. But Wal-Mart saw a market niche and filled it. Only capitalism allows that.
Our society may be slouching towards Gomorrah, but government is the least likely institution to reverse the trend. The free market not only gives us prosperity, it can also make us better people by requiring and rewarding old-fashioned virtues like thrift, prudence, courage, and stewardship. Government, which has made us so much poorer by its invasions of private property, has also wrecked the culture.
Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr., is president of the Mises Institute.