It is no accident, as the Marxists say, that Gertrude Himmelfarb, the preeminent historian of intellectual life in Victorian England, has become one of the most influential writers on civil society in turn-of-the-millennium America.
The renewed interest in alternatives to the welfare state owes much of its inspiration to professor Himmelfarb’s monumental histories of 19th-century social policy. The Idea of Poverty: England in the Early Industrial Age and Poverty and Compassion: The Moral Imagination of the Late Victorians described the Victorians’ moral seriousness as they developed public policies and forged private character-building institutions that lifted millions out of pauperism. If compassionate conservatism is to become a serious political and cultural movement in America today and not just a campaign slogan, it will have to emulate the intellectual integrity and organizational creativity of these thoughtful Victorians.
Late 20th-century movements to strengthen marriage, religion, and the mediating institutions of civil society similarly have a great deal to learn from Himmelfarb’s portrayals of 19th-century cultural uplift. In works such as Marriage and Morals among the Victorians and The De-Moralization of Society: From Victorian Virtues to Modern Values, she describes sharp declines in the rates of crime, drunkenness, and illegitimacy in mid-to-late 19th-century England. By showing how public and private morality improved dramatically in a period of economic and technological dynamism, Himmelfarb suggests a model for cultural renewal in the age of the Internet.
In her short new book, One Nation, Two Cultures, Himmelfarb suggests that America in the 1990s has begun to see a modest religious and moral revival that might even be called a Fourth Great Awakening. But since this revival is limited to only a small “dissident” part of American culture, she doubts that America at the turn of the millennium will enjoy a thoroughgoing moral revival comparable to that of Victorian England or the Great Awakenings of 18th- and 19th-century America. “The revival will continue to invigorate and expand the dissident culture, and influence the dominant culture in myriad ways, without succeeding in converting the country as a whole.”
The greatest division in America today, she writes, is not between class or race or religion. It is an “ethics gap” between Americans with different attitudes toward religion, marriage, and moral truth. “There is more in common between two church-going families one of which is working class, than between two working-class families only one of which is church-going; or between two two-parent families one of which is black, than between two black families only one of which has two parents.”
Social conservatives, she argues, are a decided minority in this cultural divide. The nonjudgmental morality of the 1960s counterculture—sexual permissiveness, toleration of deviant behavior, rejection of parental and religious authority—has taken over the dominant culture. Violence, profanity, and overt sexuality win high ratings on national television. Leading cultural institutions—for example, private universities, museums, and foundations—have become active agents of an “ethical and cultural relativism that reduces all values, standards, and institutions to expressions of personal will and power.” Most disturbing for Himmelfarb is that this relativism is not just the work of a media and academic elite out of step with mainstream America:
The elite is only a small if a most visible and influential part of this culture. The bulk of it consists of people who are generally passive and acquiescent. Most lead lives that, in most respects, most of the time, conform to traditional ideals of morality and propriety. But they do so with no firm confidence in the principles underlying their behavior. . .. Most important, they find it difficult to transmit their own principles and practices to their children.
In the face of this thoroughgoing relativism, Himmelfarb argues that it is not enough to rebuild civil society. Civil society itself is infected and must be remoralized. “If civil society is to become an effective instrument of social mediation and reformation, it will have to reaffirm the moral principles that give it its distinctive purpose. And it can do that only by exercising its authority and using the social sanctions available to it, sanctions that may be as coercive, psychologically if not physically, as the legal sanctions imposed by the state.”
This reviewer is more optimistic than professor Himmelfarb about the prospects for such remoralization. The dramatic reductions in welfare caseloads and crime rates in the mid-to-late 1990s, both of which have proved immensely popular among Americans of all income levels, show how conservatives can rapidly improve American society when they demonstrate cultural leadership. Conservatives have the opportunity to take the lead and win enormous popular support on other cultural issues such as education, marriage, and pornographic violence and sexuality in the media.
One of the most valuable chapters of the book suggests how judicious law and government can strengthen and legitimize civil society. The libertarian tradition has long emphasized the central moral importance of government in protecting rights and establishing the rule of law. Few advocates of limited government would contest Himmelfarb’s proposition that “the enforcement of law—the visible, conspicuous evidence of enforcement—is as morally fortifying as the reduction of crime itself, not only because it makes individuals safer and communities more secure, but also because it signifies a reaffirmation of the law itself, a relegitimization, as it were, of the law.” Nor would libertarians quarrel with her argument that welfare reform has been a moral blessing, sending the message that “chronic dependency is no longer regarded as morally or socially acceptable.” More controversial in conservative and libertarian circles, but still deserving of serious attention, is her suggestion that tax policy and other laws and regulations actively seek to promote marriage, private philanthropy, and other institutions of civil society.
Unlike most of Himmelfarb’s books, One Nation, Two Cultures is not a work of historical scholarship. Instead, it is cultural commentary of a high order, the reflections of a learned scholar who makes the history of ideas come alive for the general reader. Himmelfarb gives a superb brief introduction to the concept of civil society as it developed through the thought of Locke, Burke, Hegel, and Tocqueville. She draws on the great economic philosopher Joseph Schumpeter in analyzing the sometimes problematic relationship between capitalism and morality. She begins her discussion of her “two cultures” thesis with a wonderful description from Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations:
In every civilized society, in every society where the distinction of ranks has often been completely established, there have been always two different schemes or systems of morality current at the same time: of which the one may be called the strict or austere; the other the liberal, or, if you will, the loose system. The former is generally admired and revered by the common people: the latter is commonly more esteemed and adopted by what are called people of fashion.
People of fashion are not going to like Gertrude Himmelfarb’s latest book. But people who want to repair our social fabric will read it and learn from it.
Adam Meyerson is vice president for educational affairs at the Heritage Foundation.