What is the good society?

November 19, 2008 — 4 Comments

A couple of months ago I saw the facebook status of a friend of mine. In the midst of a heated debate in the public media of the growing subprime mortgage scandal he expressed the opinion that the folks who got subprime mortgages ought to have rented instead of bought. The tone of his writing suggested that this was obvious and that it was only moral turpitude on the part of the borrowers that caused them to take on such a mortgage with such large potential to destroy them (and the global financial markets to boot).

To some of you reading this, my friend’s assertion will on its face seem perfectly reasonable. They should have known better. To some of you it will seem absurd, how could they have known better? Both reactions resonate with me. After all, Anna and I read our mortgage document before we signed it at the closing. It wasn’t an easy read but it also wasn’t a terribly difficult read either. Of course, between us we have six years of graduate education one of which was in law school. It’s not that difficult to imagine people sitting at the closing who do not have the ability to read the contract. I digress however. My point isn’t to justify one or another of the two reactions.

I know people kind of detest the language of compassion in politics, but it is a cruel thing, a cruel thing, to live in a culture that values wealth and only wealth, and then turn around and tell someone that they are irresponsible and wrong to be bent on acquiring it. –Freddie de Boer

Is it wrong? My response to the friend who wrote about renting was to point out how hard it is to individually rebel against the weight of social psychology. It may even be impossible. That’s rather why I think Christ instituted the church. He realized that it is impossible to live counter-culturally in isolation.

The constant message over the last twenty years has been that homeownership is the path to economic stability. In hot real estate markets the gains over the last couple of years have been significant. I’ve had friends who bought a house and two years later sold it for 20-40% more than they bought it for. They moved on up to the deluxe house in the nicer neighborhood with the bigger footprint and greater luxuries. It’s understandable because its what our culture tells us we ought to aspire to. And I’m not prepared to say that it’s morally wrong. However, if you’re sitting in a rented apartment and watching these sorts of things going on, it’s not hard to see why you might get a subprime mortgage. For crying out loud, the whole weight of culture is telling you that you’re a fool not to. And there are precious few voices saying anything different.

Of course, the folks who took out these sorts of loans are the very people who could least afford to absorb the shock of a market fluctuation. As we have seen, the current recession has basically wiped them out and turned their (formerly high-performing notes) into “toxic paper.”

Writing on beliefnet Rod Dreher makes the following observation:

You don’t have to believe in God to understand social psychology, and how important it is for people who don’t have much of anything to live by a code that encourages thrift, modesty and self-restraint — because they have so very much to lose if they don’t. We have created a society in which it’s hard for people to develop the habits of the heart that help them achieve — well, if you don’t like the word goodness, how about health, or sustainability? Put another way, the way we’re living, and the culture of consumption we’ve created, both are unsustainable, because they depend on a distortion of human nature.

Dreher notes that Peter Maurin asserted that the good society is one that makes it easier to be good. Looking around for a bit, it’s not too difficult to see that we’ve fallen somewhat short of Maurin’s standard.

4 responses to What is the good society?

  1. 

    There is a lot of room for discussion here. The two cents I will leave is that, to my mind, it is hard to segregate economic virtues from non-economic ones, and a society with an illegitimacy rate of over one-third, and in which one out of every three pregnancies end in abortion probably isn’t one in which thrift and long-term thinking will thrive. I also think de Boer’s quote is a bit of a canard. Americans are materialistic, but we’re also more generous, say, than the Europeans, at least in terms of private charity etc. The real supreme value in our culture is not wealth, but the right to feel good about oneself and for most people you know to feel the same. I think that drives people more in America than money does.

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    • 

      Thanks for commenting Jay. Good thoughts. Unless I’m much mistaken, isn’t it the case that Americans are more generous in _absolute_ terms rather than _relative terms_ than much of the rest of the world (i.e., give less as a percentage of their wealth)?

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