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If We Can Condemn Selfish Behavior in the Economic Sphere, Why Not in the Social Sphere?

David Callahan

Should moral judgment be stripped out of social policy? Eduardo Porter argues yes today in the New York Times, calling for an end to the demonization of deadbeat dads -- a stance he says hasn't worked and shifts attention away from the economic reasons that low-skilled men find it so hard to be effective breadwinners these days. 

That all makes sense, up to a point. I'll leave it to others to say whether, empirically, the crackdown on a failure to pay child support has led to more income for single moms and caused young men to think more responsibly about their sexuality. Instead, I'd like to take up Porter's broader argument that "Stripping moral condemnation out of social policy is essential to help dysfunctional families succeed." 
I'm not so sure that's right, and here is why: I believe we've been living in an age of eroding community and weakening human bonds, where too many people are guided by their own self interest as opposed to obligation to others or concern about the common good. It's a time of extreme individualism, which can be traced back to the 1960s but which became far more powerful from the "greed is good" 1980s onward.
Progressives like Porter often bemoan the destructive effects of this libertarian shift in economic policy, as businesses leaders and the wealthy focus on their financial and political aggrandizement at the expense of everyone else. And progressives lament the way that a big slice of the public has been A-okay with a new social Darwinism that justifies blaming the poor for their own misfortune and leaving them to their fate. 
Progressives pass moral judgment on greedy business leaders and libertarian politicians every day, and rightly so. 
But it has always seemed obvious to me that the new extreme individualism and self-interest has also infected the personal and social sphere. Are we really supposed to believe that libertarianism is a powerful enough force to remake politics and public policy, but has no negative effects on, say, family life? That's silly, and I'd argue that some of the same cultural messages which legitimize greed and rapacity in the economic sphere also operate in the social sphere, weakening human bonds and making it easier for people -- and men in particular -- to walk away from their obligations, whether to spouses, their aging parents, siblings, neighbors, or children. 
It should be okay to condemn harmful libertarianisn in the social sphere, just as it is in the economic sphere. 
This is tricky terrain for progressives, because the right has been spent a generation blaming liberalism for the breakdown of the family, and the reflex of the left is to push back against that attack. But, as I argued in The Moral Center, it's actually far more plausible to blame hyper capitalism on the erosion of human and community bonds, and the diminishing power of traditional values to constrain bad behavior. Just look at what's happening in China and India right now, as divorce rates soar thanks to the recent shift to a market economy. 
If the left had its own critique of moral decline, one that dovetails with its historic concern about capitalism, then we can stop denying the obvious ways in which family breakdown hurts society and, yes, even pass judgment on people's personal behavior. More importantly, though, we can start looking for solutions that can push back extreme capitalism and strengthen humanist values like concern for others and a focus on the common good.