Are ‘Values’ a Smokescreen?

The editor of a small-town newspaper recently said, "Family values are important, ... but people want to hear about the economy right now." It was a nice way of saying what other commentators are saying a lot less nicely. The major media is sneering at the values issue, calling it a smokescreen to take people's mind off the "real" problem, which is the economy. Okay, let's talk about the economy. What are the factors that make for a thriving economy? Well, for starters people have to be willing to work hard. That's motivation and self-sacrifice. They have to be willing to honor contracts. That's honesty and fidelity. They have to invest time and effort in projects that pay off only in the future. That's self-discipline and delayed gratification. People have to co-operate with co-workers. That's kindness and respect. Lawmakers have to pass bills for industry that are fair and consistent. That's integrity. The conclusion is obvious: The marketplace doesn't function unless people have high ethical standards. Values aren't peripheral to the economy. They're its very basis. The other side of the coin is that a decline in values leads to a decline in the economy. Bad ethics are costing society a lot of money. Take health care costs. Louis Sullivan, Secretary of Health and Human Services, estimates that up to 70 percent of our health care costs stem from behavior people could control: smoking, drinking, violence, even eating junk food. These are issues of self-respect and self-control. Moral issues. The sexual revolution is still costing society a great deal as well. Health costs are driven up by the epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases. Welfare costs rise sharply as men desert their families. These are moral issues. And remember the S&L bailout? Our economy still hasn't recovered from it. And all because some folks thought they could dip their hand in the till and take whatever they wanted. That's a moral issue. Historian Gertrude Himmelfarb writes in Forbes magazine that a sound morality "is the precondition of a sound economy." In the past, Himmelfarb says, people understood this more clearly. 150 years ago, Thomas Carlyle argued that if we want to raise the standard of living, we should not ask about people's salaries but about what he called their "disposition": their beliefs and attitudes, their sense of right and wrong, their motivation and purpose. These are the central factors in a person's economic progress. Columnist Ben Wattenburg puts it this way. Suppose you had a choice of giving your child a gift of $100,000--or instead instilling values like discipline and hard work. Which one would you choose? The answer is obvious. A child without self-discipline will soon squander the $100,000. But a child with good values will work diligently and succeed at virtually anything he puts his hand to. So don't let the pundits tell you values are irrelevant to the economy. The truth is precisely the opposite. Values are at the very heart of the economy.


Chuck Colson


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