Bourgeois Values

As you may know, two law school professors – Amy Wax of the University of Pennsylvania and Larry Alexander of the University of San Diego – recently provoked a noisy backlash from progressives associated with – and culturally dominant at – their institutions by co-authoring this ( oped praising bourgeois values. In it, they gave advice that once would have been seen as anodyne – trite, even – but that many now see as racist:

“That culture laid out the script we all were supposed to follow: Get married before you have children and strive to stay married for their sake. Get the education you need for gainful employment, work hard, and avoid idleness. Go the extra mile for your employer or client. Be a patriot, ready to serve the country. Be neighborly, civic-minded, and charitable. Avoid coarse language in public. Be respectful of authority. Eschew substance abuse and crime.”

Thirty-three of Professor Wax’s colleagues wrote a letter “categorically rejecting” the perspective that she and Alexander set forth without offering any rebuttal of their arguments. Various other professors, alumni groups and editorialists also piled on. Apparently, praising bourgeois values is now a sign of racism, classism and a whole bunch of intersectionally related evils.


One of the dominant threads of my posts has been that our culture is changing. The simplest example is the decline of marriage, which has continued to fade since the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan penned his famous report on the decline of African American family structures in 1965. At that time the out of wedlock birthrate among American blacks had risen to an alarming 25%; it is now about 73%. Meanwhile the comparable percentage for white Americans is has risen to about 29%.

Other statistics, like the declines in our national savings and labor force participation rates, and the nationwide increases in substance abuse, can equally be seen as reflections of our changing culture. To me, as I gather to Wax and Alexander, these changes and others related to them are self-evidently matters of grave concern.


But another of my often-repeated thoughts is that we should not look down on people for doing things that are perfectly rational from their perspectives. To expect them to behave in any other manner would imply that we think them stupid.

Thus if the government effectively makes marriage dramatically more expensive for those at or near the poverty level – by withdrawing otherwise-available benefits and increasing taxes for couples that take on that legal status – we can be pretty sure that more and more children will be born out of wedlock. Similarly, if we make work less profitable for the same people in the same manner, fewer will work. And of course people will save less if savings are taxed aggressively while everybody is being told that Medicare and Social Security will be there for them when they’re old.

As we should expect, all of these incentives and disincentives change behavior patterns – particularly for those to whom the marginal differences in government social spending make an enormous relative difference – i.e., those who have fewer resources. Consequently, the closer you are to the poverty line (where government programs are now a dominant factor in day-to-day resource calculations), the more we should expect that your behavior will not conform to the traditional bourgeois norms.

And so we find that even as our less well-to-do brethren seem to be giving up on matrimony, marriage rates among the well-off have held up quite well. I’m confident that the statistics on other social pathologies mostly follow the same pattern – with the poor hardest hit – for the same fundamental reason.


Changing patterns of behavior necessarily change accepted norms. If in your community many or most children are born out of wedlock, there’s no stigma to bearing a child in that fashion – indeed, getting married to ‘legitimize’ a child might be seen as a sign of low intelligence since it comes at an obvious financial cost. That might sound all well and good – no child should be stigmatized for his or her parents’ marital status – but every study of which I am aware strongly indicates that children raised in stable, two-parent households have vastly better odds of having happy, productive lives. By disadvantaging the institution of marriage the state is fostering (!) a change in culture that does long-term harm.

Further, the behavioral changes encouraged by ill-considered programs and taxes have the effect of dividing society into two camps, sometimes half-accurately labeled the makers and the takers. There are plenty of takers among the well to do and makers among the poor, rendering the assumed implication of the phrase at least partly inaccurate; but it is also a demonstrable fact that we have developed a semi-permanent, multi-generational underclass, heavily dependent on Great Society programs, that has very different behavioral norms and expectations than the middle or upper-middle classes. The clashes between these different norms – different cultures, really – don’t make it any easier for people on different sides of the divide to get along, or for the poor to rise.


Not long ago, a progressive I know and love made an argument for immigration to the effect that the residents of America’s inner-cities don’t want to work, whereas Mexican immigrants do.

I see things differently. To the extent that America’s poor – whether inner city or rural – seem to be idlers, it’s a learned behavior. Everybody does what looks smart to them, given the incentives and disincentives that they face. For some of us, sufficiently stable and supportive families allow us to plan ahead, work, save, take risks, etc., in the hope and reasonable expectation of being amply rewarded for the near-term sacrifices we make. Those who have neither the resources to make such sacrifices nor a path that they believe will lead to a better future should not be expected to behave as if they did.

Would ours be a better world if everybody had bourgeois values? Absolutely.

Will that ever happen if we continue with a system that, for huge swathes of our society, encourages very different behaviors while providing inadequate educational opportunities and discouraging on-the-books work? Not a chance.


M.H. Johnston

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