Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Moral and Social Decay from Apathy

But I've discovered, Doc, that the unseen enemy of this war is the boredom that eventually becomes a faith and, therefore, a terrible sort of suicide. l know now that the ones who refuse to surrender to it are the strongest of all.
Those words were written by the fictional character Mister Roberts in the 1955 movie of the same name. Set during the War in the Pacific on a Navy cargo ship, Peter Fonda--playing the lead role--had successfully gotten himself transferred off of that ship and onto a destroyer for the final offensives against the Japanese. He wrote a brief letter to his comrades still on the ship, urging them to not give in to the boredom he speaks off, praising them for helping to him in that regard. Ensign Pulver--played by Jack Lemmon--reads the letter aloud in the final scene of the movie, only to discover immediately afterwards that Mister Roberts had been killed by a Japanese kamikaze attack shortly after penning the letter.

The issue here is that the tedious and monotonous work on the cargo ship sapped the spirit of the crew, even though there was a vital aspect to the work they performed. But they were removed from that aspect, isolated from the War, even as they helped to insure it would continue. And they were removed from their families, with--thanks to a tyrannical captain--only fleeting moments of enjoyment, of fun.

The necessity of war, however, has no parallel in everyday life. We all have tedious chores and duties to perform--some more tedious than others--but we also have the knowledge that such things are limited in scope, that they don't define our lives, for the most part, as a matter of course.

But for some, boredom is omnipresent. Two distinct economic slices of society cope with it on a daily basis: the very poor and the very rich. Both groups are trapped, in a sense, but obviously for very different reasons. And this is not a new thing, at all. Historically, the pattern is no different than it is now. Substance abuse levels are predictably higher in both of these groups. It's the three martini lunch versus the tall boy, or prescription drugs versus crystal meth to be sure, but its substance abuse just the same.

And then there's sex. Among both groups, it's just something to do, to pass the time, to get through the day. The potential costs are worse for the poor, of course, given lower levels of education and access to birth control and the like. Thus, the secondary consequence of higher birth rates among the poor, as opposed to the wealthy.

The middle ground, the middle class from lower to upper levels, holds things together as always. This is not to say there is no boredom to cope with here, only that it is offset by opportunity and hope, things unavailable to the very poor and unneeded by the very rich. And really, this observation is what informs Max Weber's central thesis in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (Routledge Classics). Weber sought to break out the religious background, differentiating Protestants form Catholics in order to show the role of theology in defining and limiting worldview, but the central idea is the same: the perception of opportunity, of being able to accomplish something, pushes people to work, as opposed to accepting a more fatalistic view of life and therefore accepting one's station in life.

The general recognition of this idea leads to the ever-so-common worries over the "shrinking middle class," and rightfully so. And it also leads to calls for the such lofty goals as the restoration of hope and the like, albeit with questionable solutions for accomplishing such goals.

But Weber's thesis--though applicable to various cultures--makes a point of the spiritual component as the driving force. Setting aside religious dogma, there is a requirement built into the Weberian thesis: opportunity to improve one's lot in life is a personal thing. This is not to say that government and society-at-large have no role to play; they most certainly do. Rather, it is to say that it must be about doing for oneself, as opposed to having others do for you: self-reliance, as opposed to reliance on others or on the state. Otherwise, the outcome is merely boredom at a slightly higher standard of living.

And that boredom--if it grows and spreads--contributes to the breakdown of social order. Limits imposed by social structures and institutions became meaningless. And as we've seen, a breakdown of these things is already under way. The question at hand: is the solution to expand the welfare state or to shrink it? With tax day here, let's consider tax burdens again, in context of the breakdowns in social order across the last several decades:


The answer seems clear.

Cheers, all.