As a quiet person, I am not likely to intrude when I run across egregious wrongs. Most often I let dastardly deeds go without
comment. Someday, I hope, I will overcome this character defect and stand up in opposition to wrongdoers.
Let me give you some examples. Last week, at an open-air concert by the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra in Danville, I did not confront the parents of children who were swinging lighted batons. Here we have a respectful audience listening attentively to a delightful program and in the center of the seating area are distracting lights disturbing the scene, distracting our senses from the music.
What should a responsible citizen do? The proper action would be to go over to the children, disarm them, and then punch the male parent in the nose after kicking the female parent in the shins. I, however, stayed in my chair and failed to apply corrective action to this inappropriate activity. Needless to say, I am ashamed of my reluctance to act on behalf of mankind in the face of uncivilized behavior.
This was not the first time I have encountered such problems. Several weeks ago the family whose property is back-to-back with ours had a swim party for their teenage children and their guests. The screaming, shrieking and shouting were beyond what any normal citizen might tolerate. As the party went on past 10 p.m., I went around the corner to confront the malefactors.
My manner was easily interpreted as belligerent. But any aggressiveness on my part was merely a disguise for my trepidation. I might get punched in the nose and kicked in the shins for my efforts. After my brief confrontation with the parents of the household, the teens were quieted but I was more disturbed than before.
These two middle-class, well-spoken adults had asserted that I had no right to tell them how to raise their children. In effect, my complaint was seen as an intrusion rather than a plea for civilized, responsible behavior. I was appalled that they did not see that we all have a responsibility to challenge behaviors that harm others.
The cult of individualism, the anarchical call for unbounded liberty destroys civilization. We hear that call from parents in our schools and executives in our businesses. Successful societies require constraints on the behaviors of individuals and institutions when the actions of one or a few threaten the liberties of others. Those constraints may be voiced in the tales we read to our children or they may be embodied in law, but they are the foundation of healthy families and communities.
The current economic crisis can be traced to the failure of individuals to consider the consequences of their actions for the well-being of others. Some call that greed. We have an entire cadre of those who worship “the market” without appreciating the necessary preconditions of competition. Among those preconditions is the presence of many buyers and sellers, none having significant power to influence price.
When we have giant oil companies, enormous entangled financial institutions and unproductive health care insurers and providers, we do not have reason to bend the knee to “the market.” When we cannot rely on parents to constrain the antisocial behavior of their children, we must look for guidance elsewhere.
Some say religion once provided a moral code that could guide the behavior of businesses and families. Yet today’s church is fragmented and increasingly in the hands of self-glorifying preachers and their congregants who are alienated from society at large.
We cannot expect much help from government because elected officials too often consider themselves among the “elect,” destined to rule rather than respect their constituents. My hope is that you will (figuratively) punch noses and kick shins, that you will complain about and disgrace those who behave without concern for the welfare of others. That is, after we each mend our own ways.•
Marcus taught economics for more than 30 years at Indiana University and is the former director of IU’s Business Research Center. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.