Ed Driscoll

Dissenting From The Greatest Generation

As Tom Blumer of BizzyBlog notes, “Walter Williams, a member of it, is a ‘Greatest Generation’ dissenter.” Williams writes:

There’s little question that the greatest generation provided their offspring, the baby boomer generation, with goods and services that their parents could not afford to give them. But tragically, the greatest generation did not instill in their children what their parents instilled in them, the values and customs that make for a civilized society. In previous generations, people were held responsible for their behavior. Today, society at large pays for irresponsible behavior. Years ago, there was little tolerance for the kind of crude behavior and language that’s accepted today. To see men sitting while a woman was standing on a public conveyance used to be unthinkable. Children addressing adults by their first name and their use of foul language in the presence of, and often to, teachers and other adults were unacceptable.

A society’s first line of defense is not the law but customs, traditions and moral values. These behavioral norms, mostly transmitted by example, word-of-mouth and religious teachings, represent a body of wisdom distilled over the ages through experience and trial and error. They include important thou-shalt-nots such as shalt not murder, shalt not steal, shalt not lie and cheat, but they also include all those courtesies one might call ladylike and gentlemanly conduct. Policemen and laws can never replace these restraints on personal conduct. At best, the police and criminal justice system are the last desperate line of defense for a civilized society. This failure to fully transmit value norms to subsequent generations represents another failing of the greatest generation.

This failure has also helped to continue to expand government (a process that began during the Greatest Generation’s heyday). As behavioral norms are abandoned because they fail to be passed down from one generation to the next, more and more laws end up being written to replace a common sense increasingly forgotten, until the result is a society sort of along the lines of A Clockwork Orange: nothing is permitted, but the most important laws are rarely enforced with any degree of seriousness. (See also: New York City, circa 1975, or San Francisco, today.)