The Predictable Contemporary Social Dilemma in America

By Carl B. Forkner, Ph.D.

To many Americans, the social state of the nation seems to be a surprise. To others, it is irrelevant as long as they feel secure within their microcosm. But to some, the devolution of American society is not only easily understood, but also predictable…and predicted. I am not by any means a historical authority on the late 20th century, other than having lived, worked, taught, and served through it. My historical research, other than social psychology, focused on the early- to mid-20th Century, with some research and study on contemporary (21st Century) political science and international affairs. However, this opinion piece derives not only on economic and political policy but also on social psychology of the last 40 years of American social evolution…or devolution, as it is more appropriately characterized. 

The 1960’s were a time of great productivity, great hope, and a time when the U.S. was leading the world in a very positive sense in many ways. First, let us take the trials and tribulations of the Vietnam War off the agenda—even though that conflict affected society in some ways, one could easily posit that the impact of society affected the political administration of the conflict as well. Now, let us look at some of the social changes of the 1960’s.

With the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960, America had visions of Camelot—a grand new era led by a leader who was a war hero and concurrently appealed to a large sector of the populace. Perhaps one of the most compelling inaugural address quotes came from his 1961 address: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” It was a time of focusing on national identity, building on the global leadership in which America found itself in the post-WWII years. Kennedy also set a lofty goal with regard to the space race with the Soviet Union—putting a man on the moon by the end of the decade…which happened at 10:30pm on July 20, 1969. This was also an era of social evolution in terms of the civil rights movement, spurred on by Martin Luther King, Jr. in his famous 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech on the Washington, DC Mall. In 1964, the Civil Rights Act was signed into law by President Johnson—an act that started with the insistence of President Kennedy, but that he would not live to see come to fruition.

To many, the 1960’s were the “Wonder Years” where jobs abounded, productivity flourished, America’s manufacturers created quality and innovative products, and the American Dream was being realized. But it was also a period where people worked together to achieve common goals, looked out for each other, and had a true sense of community. It was a time when you knew all the neighbors on your block, where your children could go out and play and you knew some parent somewhere on the block was watching—not only were the children safe, but we also knew that if we did something wrong, someone’s parent would let our parent know…lol. It was a time when church congregations meant more than simply showing up on Sunday at the same place at the same time each week—congregations were collectives of people with common beliefs who provided both spiritual and substantive support to each other. It was a time when neighbors helped neighbors, congregants helped each other, and we looked out for each other in myriad ways. But this phase of “The American Dream” was not to be long-lived as the 1970’s came into its own.

The 1970’s saw momentum from the previous decade continue. American businesses continued to grow and capture more of the global market, increased opportunities for post-secondary education developed, and many Americans enjoyed the continued neighborhood and congregational atmosphere of the 1960’s. The civil rights movement continued to gain ground, with desegregation efforts to make equal educational opportunities available for all Americans, which eventually resulted in more diverse neighborhoods in some areas—I know my neighborhood had an increase in diversity…and we had no problem welcoming our new neighbors. Of course, such was not always the case in other parts of the country, the Deep South, for example, where there are still areas with significant prejudices guiding residents. It was a period of movements for increased women’s rights, especially in the workplace, and an increased emphasis on equal opportunity laws and regulations designed to support workplace equality and govern workplace hiring practices and conduct—like racial issues, this area still has development left to accomplish.

However, following the historic Woodstock event in 1969, the 1970’s heralded an era of freedom revolution, so to speak—free love, free thinking, free expression, and “do your own thing.” It began the dismantling of previous American societal norms into smaller, clique-like groups. Groups formed that protested for “zero population growth” and saving the planet through ecological awareness. With increased availability of means by which to travel, mobility became a catalyst for the new generation to move from place to place, not setting down permanent roots like their predecessors often did. With the greater mobility and change in habits came the slow degradation of traditional neighborhoods, eventually resulting in contemporary subdivisions wherein often neighbors do not know one another. It was a period where illicit drug use was escalated at the same time alcohol was more tightly controlled. It was the beginning of times of a non-sequitur society among generations and regions.

The 1980’s found a run to profits, both by companies and by individual investors. The late 1980’s and early 1990’s saw great increases in MBA programs and college graduates with delusions of Wall Street grandeur…much like many who had visions of Hollywood, fame, many were disappointed. But the 1980’s also continued the devolution of traditional neighborhoods and congregations, leading to what was perceived as a necessary step by the government to expand social welfare programs to make up for the continued disintegration of traditional support infrastructures—and to this day, those programs continue to grow unnecessarily.

Why talk about these decades that preceded the 21st Century? I use them simply because they illustrate a path that was predictable but ignored. Garrett Hardin’s publishing of “The Tragedy of the Commons” (Hardin, 1968) the author foresaw the disintegration of societal values and personal responsibility, resulting in an increasing dependence on a government-provided “welfare society,” much like has happened in the last 40 years.

Hardin’s thesis pointed out the problem of individuals acting in what is perceived as rational self-interest, claiming that if all members of a group or community used common resources for their own gain without regard for others, all resources eventually would be depleted. This derived from the practice of herders who would share grazing fields, understanding that the grazing capacity of some animals compared to others varied, and that if an individual used common grazing grounds for the benefit of his herd without consideration of others, the common resource—grazing areas—would be depleted and no longer of benefit to any of the group. This premise, of course, had a foundation of moral principle…a value often cast by the wayside in today’s parlance.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights describes the family as the natural and fundamental unity of society. It follows that any choice and decision with regard to the size of the family must irrevocably rest with the family itself, and cannot be made by anyone else (U Thant, 1968). Hardin blamed the creation of the “welfare society” for allowing the tragedy of the commons—where the state provides for children and supports overbreeding as a fundamental right, straying from the moral foundation governing families and communities for generations. He argued against reliance of conscience as a way of policing commons—from oceans, to fresh water, to trees, to food crops & stores, and other resources—asserting that that favors selfish individuals over altruists…thus endangering common resources.

Expressing solutions to the tragedy of the commons is a problem with contemporary political philosophy. This problem of social evolution has, since the late 1970’s, infected and festered in politicians to the point where current politicians take little effort to veil personal gain above constituent needs, particularly in the US Congress. As quoted by Dr. Evil’s “Number Two” in the Austin Powers movie series, There are no countries anymore—only corporations. Unfortunately, given the focus on individual gain and power influencing by corporations, SIGs, lobbyists, and foreign governments—all of which want a piece of the American pie—Hardin’s concerns over societal devolution are coming to pass.

NOTE: This is an opinion piece. I know everyone may not agree with it, but it is no more or less valuable an opinion than the opinions of others. Respectful discussion is welcomed and encouraged.

Photo credit: Hamodia.com, July 22, 2015.

Hardin, G. (1968). The tragedy of the commons. Science, 162(3859). doi: 10.1126/science.162.3859.1243

United Nations. Dept. of Economic and Social Affairs. Population Division (2004). Levels and trends of contraceptive use as assessed in 2002. United Nations Publications. p. 126. ISBN 92-1-151399-5. “some have argued that it may be inferred from the rights to privacy, conscience, health and well-being set forth in various United Nation’s conventions […] Parents have a basic human right to determine freely and responsibly the number and spacing of their children (United Nations, 1968)”

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