Fifty years after the Moynihan Report, Americans continue to debate family structure as a factor in poverty. David Brooks doesn't mention the Moynihan Report in his latest New York Times column, but Moynihan is present in spirit in the columnist's despair over "multiple generations of people caught in recurring feedback loops of economic stress and family breakdown, often leading to something approaching an anarchy of the intimate life." Brooks's immediate point of reference is a new book by the sociologist Robert Putnam that shows how parents with no more than a high-school education are failing as parents by failing to spend as much time with their kids as college-educated parents do. While there may be simple economic explanations -- multiple jobs, long commutes, etc., Brooks sees a moral failure here as well. "In many parts of America there are no minimally agreed upon standards for what it means to be a father," he laments, "There are no basic codes and rules woven into daily life, which people can absorb unconsciously and follow automatically." A system of codes and rules is needed as urgently as money and jobs are, he argues. Some hostile readers have jumped to the conclusion that Brooks is blaming poverty itself on this lack of codes, but he's really saying that poor people make things worse for themselves and hinder their chances (and their children's chances) for advancement by failing to live according to a proper code of rules. Since the 1970s, he believes, moral relativism has discouraged people from stepping up to tell the poor how their personal decisions are hurting their chances and their family's chances. For what it's worth, he adds that a like failure to hold the wealthy accountable for their moral failings has also contributed to this demoralization. They, too, could stand a moral revival.
No doubt sensitive to his audience of Times readers, Brooks is careful to put his case for moral revival in entirely secular terms. At no point does he say that people need to believe in God or anything transcendent. Instead, he calls for the construction (or reconstruction) of a "moral vocabulary" of judgment and responsibility. With such a vocabulary we can hold each other responsible according to standards hinted at in a handful of sample questions: "Are you living for short-term pleasure or long-term good? Are you living
for yourself or for your children? Do you have the freedom of
self-control or are you in bondage to your desires?" These are Brooks's samples of "voices from everywhere saying gently: This we praise. This we don’t." Gently is an important adverb here; with it Brooks signals that he isn't looking for hellfire-and-brimstone preaching or the shaming of people that others have advocated. Even so, it still looks like a tall order when many of us still suffer, in Brooks's diagnosis, from "a plague of nonjudgmentalism." When that plague spread, he writes, "People got out of the habit of setting standards or understanding how they were set." There's another important secular concession here: standards can be set by people, Brooks says, and aren't necessarily handed down to us by some transcendent and unchanging authority. This is an important point to remember before dismissing Brooks's ideas entirely.
"The health of society is primarily determined by the habits and virtues of its citizens," Brooks argues. This is a curiously non-materialistic definition, but if we define society as interactions rather than institutions then Brooks may have a point. He concedes that we the people can set the standards that define these virtues and habits. Would he also concede that we need not look exclusively backward while setting standards for the future? He talks about "restoring norms" as if society had gotten that part right in the past, but we can recognize the utility of certain norms without necessarily recreating a past normative order in its entirety. Consider his sample moral questions quoted in the previous paragraph. Brooks's own worldview may be constrained by the ideology of personal responsibility or a belief in the family as the basic social unit, but a moral revival, not to mention a moral revolution, need not and probably ought not be so constrained. Why not ask, "Are you living for short-term pleasure or the common good?" or "Are you living for yourself or for humanity?" Why not ask that question about "the freedom of self-control" vs. "bondage to your desires" of the acquisitive rich first and foremost? Brooks himself may not be averse to any of these suggestions, though they may smack of "collectivism" to some of his fans. But no matter what he or they may think, my point is that moral revivalism is a game the left as well as the right can play. Brooks himself seems convinced that the left's only idea is to throw more money at apparently intractable social problems. That may well be the approach of welfare-state bureaucrats within the Democratic party, but the rest of the left ought to be more ambitious. Leftists should agree on the need for a moral revival, because they should be able to show that they're the real moral leaders of the nation.