Conservatives are always bemoaning the cultural fallout caused by the very political economy they so rabidly support, but never seem to make the connection. Case in point are recent columns by Ross Douthat and David Brooks on the culture of college students.
Douthat's piece discusses "party culture" on campus, wherein he highlights a study showing that affluent students at state universities benefit from a culture where they can be comfortably decadent and at the top of the social heap while working-class students find themselves isolated. Having worked on such campuses, I've seen this dynamic at work. However, Douthat does not see classism at work here, but the perniciousness of "cultural permissiveness." As we say back home in Nebraska, Douthat has it bass ackwards. The "permissiveness" by itself isn't what causes class disparities, it's the fact that party culture fits within a pre-existing class structure, a structure that Douthat would never question. He says we'd be better off with an upper class that maintained "bourgeois values" of "thrift, diligence, sobriety, and chastity."
Douthat and other cultural conservatives never seem to wonder whether the dearth of these values has anything to do with the increasing dominance of consumer capitalism over our society. Capitalism and the market care nothing for traditional values, in fact, they are the biggest forces against tradition in the world today. The fundamental contradiction between cultural conservatism's professed values and conservative support for unfettered capital also bedevils David Brooks' most recent column. He discusses how surveys of college freshmen show that they are much less interested in developing a philosophy of life than they used to be in the 1960s, and much more likely to see college education merely as a stepping stone to making money. That's certainly what I've seen in my time on campus, but Brooks is oddly silent on the causes of this cultural shift. He might be silent because the growing materialism among the youth reflects the ever-increasing hegemony of neoliberal economic thinking.
Brooks and Douthat love wagging their finger at what they consider the loss of traditional values, even though they support the biggest force for the destruction of tradition that the world has ever known: capitalism. In a lot of ways, I think this reflects a fundamental contradiction at the heart of modern conservatism, one that should not be allowed to continue unnoticed. Those who wish to destroy every human value except the cash nexus should not be allowed to stand in moral judgement over the rest of us.