The Cultural Remedy for Main Street

(Rick Becker-leckrone/Dreamstime)
How to build a free and virtuous society

Editor’s Note: The following excerpt is the third in a series of three adapted from David L. Bahnsen’s new book, Crisis of Responsibility. It appears here with permission.

The burden of living a fulfilling life belongs on the individual. To do so effectively, we must eliminate impediments to individual responsibility. Crony capitalism and a discriminatory educational system enable actors to avoid responsibility and often facilitate their victimhood. A member of society who refuses to learn a new marketable skill is a victim of his own laziness; but a member of society also becomes a victim when denied access to the doors of education or enterprise made available to other select groups. He or she ought not to embrace a victim mentality, but should be viewed differently than those who create their own estranged circumstances. That is why our approach must both deal with shortcomings in policy and address the overwhelming need for greater initiative, self-reliance, and responsibility.

We do too much to feed angst without curing it. We can caricature successful corporate executives as “fat cats,” but that does nothing to heal the covetousness driving the caricaturing. We love the idea of “recalling” politicians who disappoint us, but that does nothing to restore responsibility to the voters who elected them to begin with. The need of the hour is to empower a renewed sense of responsibility, including facing the consequences of our actions. Our crisis of responsibility cannot be overcome if we are insulated by a perpetual safety net from the consequences of our actions. We reap what we sow, and so it should be.

*    *    *

I suppose it is true that my adult life consists of being on “the inside” of all the best offered by the global economy and the information age. I work in the cosmopolitan field of investment finance and maintain offices in the affluent communities of Newport Beach, Calif., and New York City. I am married and have three children who attend private school. I live a life of comfort and convenience, despite not growing up with anything of the sort. I could never write Hillbilly Elegy, because my life has not been that life. But like J. D. Vance, I have an insatiable compassion and empathy for people who are not presently tasting a life of opportunity and prosperity. Not a bone in my body indicts anyone in this crisis of responsibility because of a cosmopolitan- or moral-superiority complex.

I passionately wish that all of God’s creation will find “the good life.” I believe in the aspirational society, and, more importantly, I believe in the extraordinary peace and contentment produced by earned success. Success is not limited to the educated, elite, or some “higher rung” of society. The free and virtuous society I long to see — the America I believe in — is exceptional because it allows all to pursue their unalienable rights to life, liberty, and happiness with a shared creed of faith, values, and character.

If I believed we could make an opportunity society flourish merely by demonizing the institutional forces and elites that have become persona non grata in our society, I would wholeheartedly join the chorus. And to the extent that constructive policy criticism is needed, it is my responsibility as a stakeholder in society to offer it. But because I genuinely love those most disenfranchised and disaffected in our society, I cannot pretend that all the pain is someone else’s fault. A culture of responsibility and scapegoatism cannot peacefully coexist. America is an ownership society, not only in our brand of economics, but in the very spirit with which we tackle adversity. Restoring our culture will not be easy, but no elitist or globalist enemy of any sort will ever be vanquished until we do.

A culture of responsibility and scapegoatism cannot peacefully coexist.

Individualism has always been a hallmark of American life, but it has fallen out of favor now. We need thriving cultural institutions now more than ever in the face of cultural shifts and economic realities, but they have been suffocated by ineffectual, top-down governance. It is not my contention that we must choose between the two and shift from enlightened collectivism to rugged individualism to find our savior. We do need to restore individual responsibility, but individualism becomes merely a buzzword when not partnered with mediating institutions.

Replacing top-down statism and elitism will happen only when we restore strong families, communities, churches, schools, and civic organizations. Subsidiarity must be restored, not only as a political or philanthropic philosophy, but also as a vision for public life. That means individuals engaged in those arenas have a responsibility to value the work they do and the greater role they play in benefiting society at large. Fraternal organizations must become more than LinkedIn entries. They must become part of the fabric of how our communities live, how we serve one another, and how we think about public life. We are engaged in solving a “chicken or the egg” cultural problem, a cycle of irresponsibility that will take great resolve to overcome.


David L. Bahnsen is the managing partner of a wealth-management firm, a trustee of the National Review Institute, and author of the book, Crisis of Responsibility: Our Cultural Addiction to Blame and How You Can Cure It.

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