Resilient Communities are the Foundations of a Resilient America.

Resilience and the “Founding Virtues”

Charles Murray in Coming Apart writes about the importance of what he calls the “founding virtues.” His basic argument is that American society has been developed on a foundation of

  • Industriousness. This virtue is based on the fundamental American assumption that gumption and hard work will lead to success, defined as a better life for self and family. As Murray notes, this has the corollary of failure as an embarrassment.
  • Honesty. We pride ourselves on what we call “the rule of law.” While Sandy Hook reminds us of the outliers, most Americans are basically law-abiding.
  • Marriage. Not so much a virtue as an institution, marriage serves as the basis for society in the sense that it implies a permanence of social relations and faithfulness.
  • Religion. Like marriage, religion is an institution that inculcates and reinforces good behavior.

If, as Murray argues, these four were the bases for American society, and if resilience has historically been a hallmark of American society, I’m forced to ask: are we becoming more or less resilient?

It must be admitted that we seem to be becoming less virtuous – seeing those virtues on which our American experiment was based diminished. The expansion of government and of our social safety net has reduced the importance of industriousness for many. While our middle class has prospered over the last few decades, much of that prosperity is due to an increasing amount of federal assistance, according to Congressional Research Service findings. There is a wealth of data that shows that marriage is less important to our society than almost ever before. More and more, marriage is a luxury of the educated, and less a status aimed at by all. Likewise, religion – though still one of our nation’s primary social pillars – is on the wane. It is only in the “honesty” category that we seem to have maintained our virtue (although, I’m not so sure you’d agree with that if you just looked at Congress!).

It is not possible to make a definitive case for reduced resilience, but several signs are not good (I intend to pursue these in more depth a blog called “America – the Not-So-Resilient”). If you believe, with me, that connectedness is a must for resilience (see, for example, Rick Weil’s work), then Murray has marshaled a multitude of facts indicating that a large portion of our population is becoming increasingly disconnected from the rest of society. Even among the more affluent, we are seeing a huge portion of our workforce forced to accept part-time jobs, or ones beneath their education level. Two generations ago, only about 5% of babies were born to unwed mothers; now it is 41%. These children are 9X more likely to be poor and poorly educated, and thus doomed to a life almost without opportunity. How can they be expected to cope with crises or change?

Can we become more resilient even if less “virtuous?” The optimist in me says “yes,” but guardedly. Ideally, we can find ways to reinvigorate the founding virtues in a way that is consistent with modern society. If we can grow new institutions (or see a rebirth of old ones) that will strengthen our social bonds, it will be a huge step. If our fiscal woes push us toward seeking individual opportunity and away from indiscriminate handouts, it will be another step. Most of all, if we embrace the virtue of resilience as the basis for renewed growth and vigor, then we will of necessity be more resilient – and quite possibly more virtuous.