We hear from all sides that America is becoming "two nations." The upper class of highly educated professionals is flourishing — rich and getting richer. But many in the working class are struggling — dropping out of the workforce and leading increasingly dysfunctional lives. The middle class is shrinking and beginning to show similar signs of dysfunction.
Liberal opinionmakers bemoan this inequality, which they tend to view solely in economic terms. Yet ironically — even as they call for more wealth redistribution and job training — they fail to see the responsibility they bear for the social conditions in which many of our society's less fortunate members now flounder.
Since the 1960s, America's elite — on the campus and in the media, government and nonprofit sectors — has led a crusade for social and cultural "liberation." In the process, it has jettisoned once-clear standards of conduct, substituting a fluid new moral code that champions self-actualization and "choosing your own values."
In a recent issue of First Things, R.R. Reno, the journal's editor, listed the multiple arenas in which America is seeing the relaxation or abandonment of once-universal norms: from sex and marriage to the legalization of gambling, marijuana and assisted suicide. On all these fronts, moral restrictions are being dropped in the name of expanding freedom for all.
Affluent, college-educated people — the top 20 percent — can generally handle the new smorgasbord of choices, thanks to their education, their grasp of risk and the social capital that helped them achieve success in the first place. But the poorly educated and vulnerable, who often lack these resources, cannot.
Reno cites statistics that prove his point. For example, upper-class Americans have developed a "relatively disciplined approach to drugs," he says. But parents who dropped out of high school are twice as likely to have children who use marijuana as are parents with college degrees. The less educated a person, the more likely he is to be a frequent gambler.
Today, freedom for the strong is coming at the expense of the weak, Reno concludes. Our society, despite professed concern for the less fortunate, is waging a "war on the weak."
In our newly liberated world, the biggest advantage the strong have may be their ability to manipulate the complex, open-ended moral code that is replacing the straightforward rules that once guided life. Think of the movie "Cinderella Man." Russell Crowe's character, a down-and-out boxer in the Depression, admonishes his son — who has stolen food for his hungry family — that stealing is wrong, no matter the circumstances. The boy is ashamed. He doesn't need a complex explanation.
Today, however, the language of right and wrong is evaporating. In its place, we promote subjective rules for living, open to endless interpretation. "Make healthy choices," we tell our youngsters. "Value diversity." Do things that are "in your comfort zone." People with the education and ability to conjure prosocial meaning from these therapeutic buzzwords feel in control of their moral lives. Others, who need a clearer compass to navigate life's shoals, are set adrift.
The consequences have been most dramatic in the arena of sex and family formation. On these issues, we live in a moral Wild West. "Decide for yourself when you're ready" for sex, we tell our kids. Sex of any kind is OK so long as it's "safe" and there's mutual consent.
As a group, America's upper class has managed to hold family life together despite this relaxed sexual ethic, as Charles Murray documented in his 2012 book, "Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010." But the bottom third of the population is collapsing into social disarray.
In 1960, notes Murray, only 2 percent of all white births were out-of-wedlock. Today, it's about 8 percent for white college graduates, but an astonishing 60 percent for white high school dropouts. Most college grads still marry, and their divorce rate — after rising — has declined to 1970s levels. But, among the bottom third of Americans, marriage is becoming rare and divorce rates are sky-high.
Our college-educated elite "talks the talk of the '60s, but walks the walk of the '50s," in Reno's words. Yet it refuses to criticize the self-destructive conduct of others. That's because the one nonnegotiable principle of the flexible moral system is nonjudgmentalism.
This is deeply selfish, says Reno. Our elite has crafted "a nonjudgmental ethic suited entirely for itself," he says, while deconstructing the moral code that once sustained the weak. "One of the most fundamental forms of greed that has emerged in the last fifty years is cultural and moral," he says.
Even if we could magically equalize incomes, our nation would still be marred by the kind of inequality that matters most: cultural and moral inequality.
Katherine Kersten is a senior fellow at the Center of the American Experiment. The views expressed here are her own. She is at firstname.lastname@example.org.