I recently read the Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, an excellent novel that I highly recommend. The dialogue to the right got me thinking. The first speaker is from a decadent, stratified society, while the latter is from an extremely egalitarian, quasi-utopian one.
That the latter speaker — the protagonist, Shevek — is overstating his case is not lost on Le Guin, who’s quite honest about the shortcomings of Annarian society. But it suggests an important truth we often miss: Being virtuous isn’t just right; it’s usually smart, too.
I’m not saying that humans are inherently good and that we should all follow our instincts and the whims of our hearts. The best of us are broken, selfish, and prone to sin and vice. (The rest of us are far worse.) Temptation is a constant and inseparable part of the human condition, both in individuals and societies.
Nor am I saying that we should abandon all rules. Quite the opposite: Following the rules and living within the limits and constraints of a good society is a huge part of what I mean by goodness.
Nor still am I saying that it’s impossible to prosper through wickedness, or that virtue is any guarantor of success or prosperity. Counterexamples are too numerous to list.
But I am suggesting this: 1) In the aggregate, and all other things held constant, those who practice and seek virtue as understood within our Judeo-Christian-Greco-Roman-Enlightenment tradition tend to prosper; and 2) The same holds for societies that encourage and cultivate those values, as well as traditions such as the rule of law and free markets, and the classically liberal values of tolerance, openness, and free inquiry.
On the personal level, Charles Murray and others have noted that in the United States and similar countries, anyone of moderate talent who finishes his education, works hard, and marries before having kids is all-but-guaranteed entry into the middle class and a degree of prosperity, security, and comfort unimaginable to most of the world. To be sure, there are plenty of antisocial and immoral ways to make a good living — or better — but in modern society, these often come with significant risks.
On a larger scale, consider the incredible change in the way fortunes have been made over the past few centuries. To grossly over-generalize, you got wealthy before 1700 by getting other people to work for you, often through the use of exploitative political power. (There were exceptions, of course.) Since then, however, the fabulously wealthy have largely made their fortunes by providing goods and services that others desired in a free market. Exploitation continued, and in some ways increased over the short term, but it was generally incidental to the creation of wealth, not its source. And a wealthy society is, in general, stronger and safer than a poor one.
Now consider Victor Davis Hanson’s thesis in Carnage and Culture. He not only describes the way Western methods of war have repeatedly bested their competition, but how central the values of personal initiative, innovation, and a relatively egalitarian society have been to these successes. A Persian nobleman or German chief might have had far greater ability to demonstrate his personal glory on the battlefield, but the very tactics that allowed him to do so meant they were likely end their days cut to ribbons by a Greek phalanx or a Roman legion comprised of citizen-soldiers who could claim no personal credit for their kills. Likewise, it’s no coincidence that the relatively-free English triumphed with egalitarian longbows against the relatively-unfree French, who were much more reluctant to give commoners the means to kill an armored knight at a distance. Finally, consider the Islamic world’s struggles with modernity compared to the success of post-Enlightenment Christendom and cultures directly influenced by it.
Virtue and liberalism are no guarantors of success and happiness, nor are vice and tyranny inevitably punished in this world. But if we are to be serious about them, we should be honest about their strengths.