For most of our history, political thought was rooted in values. But in recent years, emotion has replaced these roots. The effects of this change have been momentous.
First, it has diminished the importance of learning from the past. Why study our predecessors for insights into truth, virtue, and wisdom when the heart provides these ideals? If something offends us, it is wrong; and if it makes us feel good it is right. Hence the decline of value-oriented subjects such as history, ethics, and logic, and the rise of emotion-oriented topics such as women, minority, and transgender studies at our universities. Graduates are fluent in emotional mantra on oppression and inequality, but clueless on American history and moral ethics.
Second, the elevation of feelings has led to narcissism masquerading as altruism. If the heart dictates right and wrong, then feelings define morality. This is why attacks like “racist,” “sexist,” “bigot,” “homophobe” and other pejoratives that impugn moral character suffice as intellectual arguments in today’s public discourse: Opponents are not merely wrong; they are immoral. Hence opponents of same-sex marriage are hateful, bigoted and morally rotten; and opponents of an expanded welfare state are cruel, greedy, and heartless. And advocates deserve an inflated sense of self-righteousness and self-importance for their brave moral stance.
Which leads to the third consequence: Intentions matter, not results. Whether one feels good trumps whether one accomplishes good. Thomas Sowell has labeled it “stage-one thinking” — a failure to move beyond emotions and ask, “What is the consequence?” One example is the “War on Poverty.” Nicolas Eberstadt estimates that, since 1964, we have spent nearly $20 trillion — yes, trillion — in inflation-adjusted dollars on anti-poverty programs out of compassion for the poor. He adds:
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The share of overall personal income from social welfare transfers jumped from 5.8 percent in 1964 to 17.0 percent in 2013; more than one dollar in six within the overall American household budget thus comes from government entitlement programs, redistributed through social welfare guarantees.
But positive results remain to be seen. Preceding the implementation of the War on Poverty, the poverty rate was dropping precipitously. Today, despite decades of stratospheric spending and redistribution efforts, the poverty rate has climbed higher than it was in 1966. Meanwhile, the dissolution of the family, particularly among minority communities, ensues — while the national out of wedlock birthrate reaches over 40%, it has surpassed an astounding 70% in the black community. Until good people aim at doing good rather than feeling good, reform is impossible.
In micro areas of life we realize this: We feel like eating junk food, but refrain from doing so for the sake of health. We want to be selfish, but strive to think of others for the sake of community. We feel like being lazy, but work hard for the sake of productivity. We establish values to overcome our feelings and to elevate us toward health and virtue.
The same must be re-established in the macro realm. Our cultural, economic and moral health are paying the price.