Economic Origins, Culture Wars
Jude Wanniski
June 7, 1995


When Bill Bennett, Empower America’s co-director, decided not to run for President last summer, the reasoning he gave had to do with the nature of his mission, which is to elevate national standards of morality. He acknowledged that this mission is more appropriately pursued as a private citizen than as an official of the government. This is why we now find ourselves pleased that he has challenged Time Warner’s amoral approach to its wares. He is exercising his First Amendment rights under the Constitution in a vigorous attempt to persuade Time Warner not to exercise its First Amendment rights to produce stuff that it should be ashamed to produce. This is as it should be. 

For Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole to challenge Time Warner is another matter, which I would have advised against had I been asked. He is the frontrunner for the GOP presidential nomination, a man who wants to be the most powerful man in America. While he has the same First Amendment rights as the rest of us, he also had the same choice available to Bill Bennett -- who decided it was inappropriate to intermingle questions of private morality with public power. Dole’s calculated decision to single out Time Warner for attack is the first really serious mistake he has made in his presidential quest this time around. The American people, of course, agree by overwhelming majorities that some of the company’s output is shameful, but on reflection they will be troubled by the thought of the most powerful man in America focusing the full attention of his wrath on just one of us. Vice President Gore’s wife challenged the industry to label its bad stuff. Vice President Quayle used the fictitious Murphy Brown as a metaphor for cultural decline. Richard Nixon had an Enemies List, and there was at least some cold comfort in being one of many on that list. Bob Dole should have known better than to produce a List of One -- one transparently identified with the Democrats. We can’t imagine Ronald Reagan or George Bush or Jack Kemp making that decision. It’s hard even to imagine Speaker Newt Gingrich doing so with premeditation.

Time Warner’s argument and that of its artists is that they are producing work that is reflecting life as it is being lived among those at the bottom of the pile, and that this message should get out. Bennett argues that Corporations at the top of the pile should not be profiting, but should leave this work, if it is necessary, to those who live at the bottom, in the shadows. My own guess is that this is exactly what would happen if Time Warner tightened up its standards by a notch or two. It is because of our First Amendment, more than any other of our rights, that we are now the greatest nation on earth. We allow all messages to get out in one way or another, even if only in the shadows. The New York Times, which prints only that which is fit to print, remains the national standard in journalism. Yet correctly, it must defend the rights of the slime peddlers who currently occupy Times Square -- a site once the source of national pride, but now at the center of Shadowland. 

A government that gets into the business of drawing lines, on what is a legal communique and what is not, sets into motion an internal corruption that inevitably destroys from within. If you had wished to see pristine morality on the planet not long ago, you could have traveled to the Soviet Union or the People’s Republic of China. The Communist Party has always known what is good for the people and what should be banned. There was no smut in the magazines or the movies, which were produced by the state. We can be sure that our own National Public Radio and Television, which do not enjoy First Amendment rights, will not produce gangsta rap or gratuitous sex and violence, as long as they are getting tax dollars. The MacNeil-Lehrer News Hour, for goodness sakes, has yet to air a single segment on the O.J. trial.

As a matter of fact, MacNeil-Lehrer Monday night aired two segments dealing with the subject of free expression. There was no mention made of any connection between the two, but of course there was. In the first, keying off Dole’s attack, there were complaints from conservatives about violence on film and in rap, arguing that it should be stamped out because it causes children to be violent. In the following segment, there were insistent demands from pro-choice liberals that something be done by the federal government to prevent pro-life demonstrations at abortion clinics, because the charges that abortions are murder causes physical intimidation of people who work in those clinics. In each case, right and left, there was a demand that a higher standard of morality be enforced through government abridgement of free expression.

My own preference is for the kind of process that produced Victorian Morality, as it blossomed at the end of the 19th century following several decades of economic growth invited by English free markets, low taxes, and a gold standard in the reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901). Alexandrina Victoria was born in 1819 at the end of the Napoleonic Wars and lived to see the dawn of this century of wars. Family and community values fared equally well in our own country throughout this era. The economic policies of the national government produced a century of peace and prosperity. There was exception, of course, in the time out to cleanse the national family of slavery, which required the war power of the federal government for affirmative actions termed “emancipation” and “civil war.”

It is when there is hope and opportunity and fluidity throughout the nation state that we find the strengthening of cultural values. It is fine for Bennett to preach morality from the pulpit to a national audience. But if the audience upon re-entering the real world from his church encounters a sign that reads “Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here,” there ain’t going to be fewer divorces, abortions, rapes and murders at the end of the week. This is why Bennett’s partner at Empower America, Jack Kemp, works the outside of the church. John Kolbe, a columnist for The Phoenix Gazette, on May 29 observed Kemp and Bennett in action at an Empower America event in his home town and wrote: “They are traversing the land like a pair of missionaries bent on restoring America’s economic and cultural soul. They brought their revival tent to Phoenix last week, and the bracing clarity of their message of economic growth, political inclusion, and personal responsibility was a useful reminder of why Bill Clinton has been eclipsed by Newt Gingrich in the war for public attention.” On CNN’s Inside Politics Monday night, Empower America’s chairman of the board, Steve Forbes, took one step closer to a run for the GOP presidential nomination. He essentially told CNN’s Judy Woodruff he might do so because none of the candidates in the field has presented a vision of the future -- and a way of getting there -- that encompasses the missionary zeal of Kemp and Bennett. 

Without a determined focus on the economic origins of our social pathologies, there is little hope of improving the general behavior of the population in general. Our religious and secular missionaries can only get so far with lofty sermons to those below. It is up to our elected political leaders to restructure the political economy to open up the flow of capital from the top to the bottom. There is some promise of this happening, but the going is extremely slow. Old Guard Republicans in the Senate who have done little or nothing to assist in that process should tend to their own responsibilities instead of crowding into the pulpit with the preachers.