Sin and Decadence


Most people associate decadence with ice cream sundaes, raucous parties, or the fall of the Roman Empire. And many people say we live in decadent times. Just look at the drugs, the sex, the heavy-metal videos. Or, if you prefer, look at the yuppies, squandering all that money on BMWs, gourmet dinners, and personal fitness trainers.

Yes, ours is a decadent era. And many of the signs of its decadence are exactly those to which the conventional critics point—children growing up without fathers, families growing old without savings, politicians growing rich without scruples.

But every era has its wastrels and its rascals. Even in abundance, they can't taint the age as a whole.

What makes our times particularly decadent is neither obscene movies nor obscene spending. It is the widespread abdication of personal responsibility—an abdication reinforced and applauded not only by the culture at large but by the putative critics of decadence themselves.

We have ceded ourselves, body and soul, to that amorphous concept known as the government. We ask it to be our parent, our teacher, our friend. We expect it to tell us what's right and what's wrong, bail us out when we're low on cash, even nag us to eat our vegetables. We don't make moral choices, we make laws.

But, wait, you say, wouldn't we go to hell in a handbasket if the law didn't keep us in line? Good question. It was in fact a burning issue back in 1644, when hell was more than a rhetorical device.

To those who believed only public regulation could prevent private perdition, John Milton offered an alternative: "There were but little work left for preaching, if law and compulsion should grow so fast upon those things which hithertofore were governed only by exhortation."

Paradoxically, those of us who, like Milton, believe state functionaries ought not to govern morality tend to get nervous when the preachers start exhorting. Much of the time, we don't particularly object to their message. What bothers us is what comes next.

It seems to follow, as the night the day, that if Nancy Reagan tells kids to say no to drugs, we wind up with a Drug Czar. If MADD says drunk driving is dangerous, Congress outlaws selling alcohol to 19-year-olds. If recycling is good, cities declare it mandatory. If cigarettes are bad, tobacco companies can't advertise them. If voluntary service is virtuous, it becomes required.

In this system, everything bad is illegal. Anything legal must be good—or at least acceptable. And, of course, anything really great is required. This is what people call the "teaching role" of the law.

Rather than leave both choices and consequences to the individual, this notion of law turns them over to the masses, the majority, the mob…the Congress. By doing so, it squeezes out the natural regulators—not only the preachers but also the experiences from which people learn. And it shifts the costs of vice from the guilty to the innocent.

To protect drug users from the consequences of addiction, for example, we declare drugs illegal. That makes drug traffickers rich and the neighborhoods in which they do business dangerous. Children get shot; so do cops. Casual users get hauled off to jail. And, all the while, we treat the addicts themselves as pitiful victims.

Or, because some gamblers overindulge their pastime and ruin themselves financially, we pass laws against poker parties and Superbowl pools. We turn nearly the entire country into lawbreakers. Everyone is guilty, but no one is responsible. If someone actually wrecks his life at the track, we call him an addict—another helpless, choiceless victim.

This system of detecting sin by majority rule not only destroys personal responsibility, it erodes the civic virtues on which a free society depends. To get along with each other, we have to maintain some very special, very fragile characteristics.

For starters, we need both a sense of proportion and some self-restraint. This means that if some Jehovah's Witnesses come to your door, you politely tell them you aren't interested. You don't sic Fido the pit bull on them. They, in turn, don't spray paint "Unbeliever" on your garage door or try to kidnap your children.

To take a more quotidian example, if the diner at the next table lights a cigarette, you don't immediately scream that she's giving you cancer. You consider how much the smoke actually bothers you and how long you'll have to endure it. On the other hand, if you're the smoker, you ask your neighbors if they mind if you smoke.

This kind of healthy tolerance is fast disappearing, and the reasons are largely political. Everyday frictions escalate into nasty, often ideologically charged, conflicts, and people run to the authorities at the first sign of disagreement.

Old-fashioned neighbors who wouldn't mind their own business were preferable to the modern kind—who are equally obnoxious but too gutless to criticize their neighbors in person. Instead, they send the zoning board to close down day-care homes and prayer meetings or they anonymously dispatch child-welfare authorities to investigate mothers who dare to leave 10-year-olds home alone. Rather than politely say, "Could you please put out your cigarette? It sets off my allergies," they get an ordinance passed to ban smoking in public.

When the law determines vice and virtue, everyone competes to determine the law. As the competition grows more and more furious, the stakes get higher, the debate grows more vicious, and our particular form of decadence feeds on itself.

We end up with a struggle between those who can't tolerate the idea that anyone anywhere is having fun and those who can't tolerate the idea that anyone anywhere disapproves of their fun. Pro- and anti-pornography forces threaten each other with RICO suits, AIDS activists storm Catholic masses, "smokers' rights" square off against "nonsmokers' rights," and feminists define rudeness as "sexual harassment."

If people don't like something—insider trading, oral sex, all-male clubs, helmetless motorcycle riders—they can't rest until it's outlawed. To do otherwise, they have come to believe, is to endorse what they despise. Remember: The law is our teacher.

But the central insight of our liberal tradition is that the law is neither teacher, nor parent, nor priest. Both virtue and civility are better served if we restrict the domain of government and leave moral choices, and their consequences, to the individual. Neither the pursuit of happiness nor the pursuit of truth profits from state intervention.

Those who decry decadence have a point. But if they would do more than posture, they must abandon the quest for police power. They must begin to restore trust in individual responsibility and individual conscience. For these are the principles we have allowed to decay.