My father and I went to the bank today, and he remarked how surprising it was that a stable economy and the presence of money causes so much social tranquility. I asked him what he meant, and he noted how people here generally are not worried about living to see tomorrrow, they know how to get what they need, and things are much less uncertain than they are in, say, war zones.
I started thinking about this. On its most basic level, there are two reasons why the strong don't simply take what they need from the weak: enforcement of social norms by power structures like the police or armed citizens, or an understanding that theft and murder is harmful and evil. (Some would call this rational self-interest, but even granted that it is in people's interest to have a general atmosphere of respect for society, you could easily determine that a single mugging would provide a benefit to you that outweighs the slight community instability you would feel. Hence "rational self-interest" must include a moral component or break down in practice. This goes back to the tragedy of the commons, which I may talk about later sometime.) Some people, notably those in government, don't seem to appreciate how much society depends on morality, and not brute force, to keep the peace.
In my political science classes, we called this "social capital." Social capital is the accumulated trust in your communal institutions that lets you accept a check with the expectation that it can be turned into cash, or cross an intersection knowing that nobody on the cross street will run the red light.
Social capital is the first thing to go once the society goes to pieces. The orgy of looting that took place in Iraq in those first few days after Saddam fell, or the less serious reports of looting after hurricanes, demonstrate this quite well. And the police and military forces have a terrible time trying to suppress unrest, because even in great numbers they were still swamped by the looters.
Society can only have a thin layer of stability so long as people only do the right thing when everything goes well. A truly strong society needs citizens who will do the right thing, always, even if nobody is looking. For this reason, I worry when I hear about schools where the focus is on "affirming the child," not teaching about right and wrong. I worry about the prevalence of cheating at schools and colleges, including my own (which is shocking, given that it is a religious college). But, I suppose that civilization has always been like this. It just makes it all the more important for those of us who are moral to take the lead in sustaining the community. As it says in the Ethics of the Fathers, "In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man."
(NB: By "man" they mean "leader." It's an idiom from two thousand years ago. Don't start thinking I'm some sort of mysogynist because I don't like watering down the original language...)
I'm heading back to school in a few days. The Israel Club is calling for volunteers to pass out literature at the RNC, which should be fun. I'll post how things go.
I gotta switch browsers. I can't add weblinks in Safari. Oh, well. Looks like Mozilla Firefox as soon as I get back to the dorms.