The “greatest generation” is a term sometimes used in reference to those Americans who were raised during the Great Depression, fought in World War II, worked in farms and factories and sacrificed for the war effort while maintaining the home front. Following the war, these Americans, many of whom were born between the turn of the century and 1930, went on to produce a level of wealth and prosperity heretofore unknown to mankind.
There’s no question that this generation made an important contribution. Let’s look at what else that generation contributed that might qualify them for the generation that laid the foundation for the greatest betrayal of our nation’s core founding principle: limited federal government exercising only constitutionally enumerated powers.
When the greatest generation was born, federal spending as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) was 2.5 percent. As they are now dying off, federal spending is 20 percent of GDP and that doesn’t include government meddling. If the grandparents of the greatest generation were asked to describe their contacts or relationship with the federal government, after a puzzled look, straining their recollection faculties, they might answer, “I used to chat with the mailman once in a while.”
Today, there is little any American can do without some form of federal control, whether it’s how much water we can use to flush a toilet, what kind of car we drive or how we prepare for retirement. Congress manages our lives in ways unimaginable to our ancestors through agencies created by the greatest generation, such as Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Social Security Administration and a host of alphabet agencies such as EPA, DOL, BLM, CDC and DOT.
There’s little question that the greatest generation provided their offspring, the baby boomer generation, with goods and services that their parents could not afford to give them.
But tragically, the greatest generation did not instill in their children what their parents instilled in them, the values and customs that make for a civilized society. In previous generations, people were held responsible for their behavior. Today, society at large pays for irresponsible behavior. Years ago, there was little tolerance for the kind of crude behavior and language that’s accepted today. To see men sitting while a woman was standing on a public conveyance used to be unthinkable. Children addressing adults by their first name and their use of foul language in the presence of, and often to, teachers and other adults were unacceptable.
A society’s first line of defense is not the law but customs, traditions and moral values. These behavioral norms, mostly transmitted by example, word-of-mouth and religious teachings, represent a body of wisdom distilled over the ages through experience and trial and error. They include important thou-shalt-nots such as shalt not murder, shalt not steal, shalt not lie and cheat, but they also include all those courtesies one might call ladylike and gentlemanly conduct. Policemen and laws can never replace these restraints on personal conduct. At best, the police and criminal justice system are the last desperate line of defense for a civilized society. This failure to fully transmit value norms to subsequent generations represents another failing of the greatest generation.
If there’s an American generation that can justifiably be called the greatest generation, it’s that generation responsible for the founding of our nation — men such as James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, George Washington and millions of their fellow countrymen. This is the generation that threw off one form of oppression and laid the foundations for unprecedented human liberty. That is not a trivial achievement, for most often in mankind’s history, one form of oppression has been replaced with another far worse, as we’ve seen in Russia, China and Africa.
Walter E. Williams is a professor of economics at George Mason University. To find out more about Walter E. Williams and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.
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