Is the U.S. Declining Because Americans Abandoned ‘Bourgeois Values’?

Amy Wax, a University of Pennsylvania Law School professor who co-authored a controversial column about bourgeois values. Photo: Penn Law

It’s rare for an 800-word newspaper column to generate as much controversy as the one published a month ago in the Philadelphia Inquirer. In it, Amy Wax and Larry Alexander, law professors at the University of Pennsylvania and the University of San Diego, respectively, argued that the collapse of “bourgeois values” — defined by the duo as, among other things, being “neighborly, civic-minded, and charitable,” not using bad language, respecting authority, and eschewing “substance abuse and crime” — can go a long way toward explaining what they see as America’s recent socioeconomic difficulties. They believe it accounts for social trends ranging from low male labor-force participation to the opioid crisis.

Key to their argument is the idea that some cultures embrace bourgeois values more than others:

All cultures are not equal. Or at least they are not equal in preparing people to be productive in an advanced economy. The culture of the Plains Indians was designed for nomadic hunters, but is not suited to a First World, 21st-century environment. Nor are the single-parent, antisocial habits, prevalent among some working-class whites; the anti-“acting white” rap culture of inner-city blacks; the anti-assimilation ideas gaining ground among some Hispanic immigrants. These cultural orientations are not only incompatible with what an advanced free-market economy and a viable democracy require, they are also destructive of a sense of solidarity and reciprocity among Americans. If the bourgeois cultural script — which the upper-middle class still largely observes but now hesitates to preach — cannot be widely reinstated, things are likely to get worse for us all.

It’s worth pointing out that this is not a new argument, of course — it’s a mix of, among others, brand-name conservative figures like Richard Nixon and David Brooks and Charles Murray. Conservative critiques of the counterculture ethos, of the reckless individualism of the liberal ideal, have been going on for decades (or longer). Still, the Inquirer column caused an uproar on the Penn campus, and that uproar became a full-blown conflagration when Wax gave a provocative quote to the Daily Pennsylvanian, a Penn student newspaper, for an article about the growing controversy: “Everyone wants to go to countries ruled by white Europeans,” she said, since those countries embody bourgeois values.

Nearly half of Wax’s colleagues at Penn Law School denounced her — 33 of them — signing an open letter, also printed in the Daily Pennsylvanian, in which they noted that while Wax had a right to say what she wanted and that they weren’t calling for any sort of punishment, they wanted to make it clear that they “categorically reject Wax’s claims.” Penn Law School’s chapter of the lefty National Lawyers Guild, on the other hand, did imply that she should maybe be punished, arguing in a statement that it was worth considering whether her co-byline on the op-ed should disqualify her from teaching a course required of Penn first-year law students.

All this local controversy, in turn, became a temporary focus of the roiling national debate over campus activism, free speech, and so on. NYU professor Jonathan Haidt, a leading figure in that conversation, wrote a statement defending some of Wax’s claims and arguing that “collective actions” like the letters published denouncing Wax “are only appropriate when colleagues have clearly and flagrantly violated their professional duties.” Conservatives, meanwhile, had a field day — well, field weeks at this point — arguing that Wax and Alexander were being unfairly attacked by the left for making common-sense observations about hard work and so on.

Since this controversy has quickly come to touch upon so many of the fiercest debates current raging about academia, racism, and other subjects, Daily Intel asked Wax if she would be willing to do an interview. She initially said yes, but later agreed only on the condition that we would both record the conversation and that New York run it verbatim. The entire interview, save for pleasantries at the start and finish and some light copyediting for clarity, is printed below:

I know this wasn’t the first time you’ve written about some of these issues, but what inspired you and Larry Alexander to write this particular column? 
Oh, I don’t know. He sent it to me, and he said “Do you want to co-author it?” and I said, “Sure, but I want to change some of it, because I don’t like all of it.” So I proposed some changes, and he said, “Okay,” and we submitted it a bunch of places. I knew someone at the Philly Inquirer who’d asked me to write before, so he took it.

Did any of your changes touch upon the stuff that’s ginned up controversy? 
No. I didn’t like the kind of, you know, bubble-wrapped, “Yale or jail” part of it, which was, if you adhere to the bourgeois virtues, then you’ll get to rise to the top of the heap, which is just this direction that elite people always end up going in. And I think, Wait a second, how is that some kind of viable program for all society? It just doesn’t compute. You know, we can’t all be in the top 5 percent. So I said, no, the whole point of this is that people from all walks of life, up and down, that their life will be better — and that communal life will be better — if, you know, they behave themselves, basically.

Gotcha. Yeah, there’s a sentence in there where you specifically say, this might not mean you become one of society’s winners, but you’ll at least lead a better life. That was sort of the point you wanted to get across, right?
Yeah, well I wouldn’t even use the word winners, because once again, we’re sort of succumbing to this “Yale or jail” mentality. (I’m reviewing Richard Reeves’ book [Dream Hoarders] right now. He just constantly has this tic, which drives me crazy.) But yeah, that’s the basic point. I would say winner is not the word I would use. I would say, you know, “elite,” just numerically at the top of the heap, as opposed to the middle of the heap or somewhere else on the scale of distribution of affluence, or prestige, or whatever.

Were you anticipating much of a response to this?
[Laughs] I was a little bit blindsided, I have to say. I wasn’t paying much attention.

When did the full weight of it hit you?
I wrote the op-ed, we published it, then I did the DP interview, and then all of this stuff started coming at me. Actually, what happened was people poured … I mean all of these emails and calls thanking me. Thanking me. I mean, what was striking about it was the forgotten men came out of the woodwork, and told me how grateful they were that somebody quote-unquote “had the courage to say what we were all thinking but don’t dare to say.” And I heard from, you know, college students, I heard from law students, as well as just ordinary people and all walks of life.

And that was really interesting. But then I got tipped off to some of the statements of the Penn students, [National] Lawyers Guild, and the anthropology students and all of that stuff. I kind of started to find out about all of this, so… and I can’t say I paid that much attention to it, because it just struck me as the usual agitprop.

And then half your colleagues in the law school ended up signing a letter sort of denouncing your views, right?
There was a Gang of 33, yes. I call them the Gang of 33.

What did you make of that letter?
Actually the most interesting part about it was the reaction to it, which was effusive enthusiasm for me, and scathing criticism of my colleagues. I mean, if you read the comments on the Daily Pennsylvanian — the comments posted after the letter — they are 97 percent critical. I don’t know what the word is, contemptuous would be more like it. The theme of it was, you know, “Moms, don’t let your children grow up to be Penn law students.” That’s how I would summarize it. That’s how I would summarize the gist of the comments.

So just jumping into substance, I mean, you define bourgeois culture as, quote, “Be a patriot ready to serve the country. Be neighborly, civic-minded, and charitable. Avoid coarse language in public. Be respectful of authority. Eschew substance abuse and crime.” I guess the main reason — you know, setting aside the responses to it, to your column — the main reason I’m skeptical, and a lot of other folks are skeptical, is it seems like there are so many examples of really powerful people violating all these rules, and yet succeeding regardless because of the resources they have available to them and the connections they have available to them. Doesn’t it feel like these rules don’t apply as much to people already near the top, or already successful?
Well, first of all, I would contest that there are so many people who routinely violate these rules and don’t suffer for it. I’m going to contest that. The people that we know about are, you know, celebrities. They’re a teeny, tiny tip of the iceberg. People who have outside resources. People who are the people who are in the media that we hear about — and I agree with you, many of them do violate these rules — but if you go down just a little bit further on the scale, to people I would call upper-middle class, you know, the upper-middle-class worker bees — the people that you know, the people that I know, the people that we socialize with, we went to school with, the people in our neighborhoods, because we’re part of this sort of well-educated elite, you and I. Those people, they do not behave that way. If they did, they wouldn’t stay where they are for long. Maybe a few do, but it’s nothing near to the norm.

I mean, I’m married to an academic oncologist, a cancer doctor, okay? He and his colleagues are some of the most conscientious, devoted, hard-working, conventional bourgeois people in the known universe. They are the people that keep this society going. So I just don’t agree with that, “we know so many people.” That’s not the norm.

I grew up in Newton, Mass., which is a really upper-middle-class place, very affluent, and I know a fair number of kids who got into some legal trouble as teenagers that I think would have absolutely, completely, derailed the life of someone who, for example, had to work full-time at 18 years old, or didn’t have bail money. But these are just minor roadblocks for more affluent teens, so it just strikes me that a lot of people violate the rules or slip up at one point or another. You don’t think society treats people coming from different stations differently, and punishes them to different degrees?
Well, I’m not denying that. I’m not saying that there aren’t youthful infractions, right? There are. People aren’t perfect. But there’s a difference between a lapse and a way of life. So when we have whole swaths of people who abandon key elements of these precepts, you know, on a routine basis, that is going to produce a lot of trouble. Pulling apart from one little infraction, and, you know, lesson learned, doesn’t happen again. And, you know, the list that we gave in that op-ed is radically incomplete. You know, we’re talking about thrift, punctuality, order, temperance, prudence, diligence, industry. I mean, the list goes on and on. I’m not saying, you know, the adolescents of the upper-middle class are perfect in every respect. But I can tell you, if they made a habit of it, their life would not go well.

But if you’re a 15-year-old, and you get caught with a little bit of weed — which we can agree happens to rich kids and poor kids alike — if that leads you to going to jail, or to missing a part-time job you need stay afloat, couldn’t that kick off a much more serious process? In terms of the question of whether this becomes a way of life, or just a one-off youthful indiscretion.
Well, first of all, I think you’re focusing on this one little fact of the potential discrepancy, based on, you know, how well off your parents are. And I think that’s just gotten wildly mythologized, okay? And you’re also assuming that having committed one infraction, and getting into maybe more severe trouble for it, that that somehow destines you to, you know, proceed on a complete downward spiral where you father children out of wedlock, where you commit other crimes, where you don’t work at all. I don’t think you appreciate the extent to which there has been a departure from some of these precepts. I mean, I know people in the medical community, you know, once again, I know a lot of people who are in the medical community who’ve told me that it is routine in West Philadelphia to encounter men who have never, ever worked. Never held a job. So, you know, I think to say you go from being busted for marijuana — which, by the way, is never a felony, so that’s a myth …

No way, what’s never a felony?
… to never taking a job, never working, fathering three kids by three different women, you know, getting in trouble with the law, getting high all the time. I’m sorry, it’s very hard for me to see that sequence, and I am not denying there are inequalities in our society. I am not denying that. I don’t think, you know, that defeats our basic point, which is about trends, big trends.

But in terms of big trends, how does your theory account for the fact that, for example, serious crime has been going down for decades, and youth pregnancy
Okay, well, compare it to 1940, compare it to 1950, everybody always compares it to the high-water mark of crime, when crime was rampant, it was out of control. That’s the ’70s, the late ’70s, okay, the early ’80s. That is not the point of comparison for somebody my age, who was a child in the ’50s. You know, we left our cars unlocked, we left our bikes unlocked, our houses unlocked. You know, never saw a gun, never saw a policeman. I’m sorry, it just depends on what your benchmark is, what your touchstone is. So this mantra that keeps being repeated, crime is going down, has been going down for decades, well, I don’t think you’re looking back to the right era. The other thing is, yes, crime is going down, but the fact is that there are places where homicides are a fairly routine occurrence, so that’s geographically concentrated. So, you know, it may be that crime is going down, it may be it’s not going down. It’s still a good idea to be law-abiding.

A lot of the problems we have in our criminal-justice system, you know, the problem of over-incarceration, the problem of prosecutorial abuse, the problem of just this sort of mass crop of people, of plea bargains, they all have to do with the system being overloaded. If crime was lower, many of the problems would go away. I actually think the criminal-justice system is out of control. We ought to be reassessing the over-criminalization that occurs, but there’s no substitute for rectitude, to designate a bourgeois value. There’s no substitute for it. Unless you think there is a substitute for it. I don’t know.

Well, I guess in terms of talking about the ’40s and ’50s, back then, Congress literally held hearings over comic books, and how they were supposedly contributing to out-of-control youth crime. What I have trouble with is that it seems like there’s some potential when you talk about these big, not always strictly defined things [like bourgeois values], that some element of moral panic creeps in. You don’t think there’s any risk of that?
Well, I mean, we have moral panic, it’s just about other things, you know? There’s always moral panic. I mean, I’m not praising every single aspect of the ’50s. That is a straw man. We just don’t do that. I think people have this bizarre idea that because there were things about the ’50s that were undesirable, ergo, everything about the ’50s was undesirable. I mean, this is really a logical error of the first order — it’s the baby with the bathwater problem. Everything about the ’50s is tainted because there were some awful things about the ’50s. I mean, it’s perfectly possible to have an era in which there were some bad things, and there were some really good things. There were things that were worse than the way they are now, and there were things that really were much better than the way they are now. I mean, why is that not possible?

Sure, but by that same token, couldn’t you say that the era you describe as one when things were better, from the ’40s to the ’60s, a lot of that was sort of the postwar boom, and America emerging as the world’s primary superpower. So you guys argue that it was adherence to bourgeois values that quote “was a major contributor to the productivity, educational gains, and social coherence of that period.” I guess, from a social-scientific perspective, why should I look to adherence to bourgeois values rather than, say, the fact that there was a huge boom in investment, and all these men were coming back and starting families? Why should I pick out bourgeois values as the most important thing? 
Well first of all, why can’t we have both? The second is, the way that the men behaved is part of bourgeois values. I mean, the men could have come back and basically said, “Oh, I don’t want to get married, I want to just sleep around, hook up, and have a grand old time, and I’m not interested in having kids anyway, that’s passé.” I mean, they could have done all that stuff. I mean, let me give you the counterfactual — even though I agree with you, our economy was booming for structural reasons, and, there were many favorable conditions. Suppose that those conditions prevailed but people had just wholesale repudiated and rejected every single bourgeois value? Suppose they had done that. Do you think things would have gone well?

No, but I think if GIs had come home, and had been told, “You’re going to have to go hundreds of thousands of dollars into debt to get an education,” wouldn’t that have affected their decision over whether or not to start a family and get more education?
Well first of all, the percentage of GIs who actually went to college, even with the GI bill, was very small.

Sure, but I meant that as a proxy for the broader question of how will society treat your decision to settle down, and buy a home, and start a family? You could switch out the GI bill for mortgage rates, or wages [in my hypothetical]. It just seems like there’s a lot of endogeneity here — where I decide to adhere to bourgeois values, because I know that I will get a good deal. When people are robbed of that prospect of a good deal, don’t you think that affects their decision-making?
I’m not saying it doesn’t, but I simply have a lot of trouble seeing, given whatever hardships and difficult and challenging conditions exist in the economy — and I’m not denying that they do — how can behaving worse be a better decision than behaving better? I just don’t get that. I just don’t get that. It doesn’t make your life better. It increases the probability that your life will go badly. Whatever conditions prevail, the people who engage in prudent personal behavior, on average, are going to do better. That is all I’m saying. That is all we’re saying.

Not every single one, because there’s all the vagaries of human existence, but I think on a demographic level, on the population level, we can confidently make a statement. And this is not a right-wing idea. The Brookings Institute’s Isabel Sawhill has data that shows if you follow three simple rules, even in the current challenging environment, your chance of being poor is in the small single digits. All right, three simple rules: graduate from high school, take a job, any job, and keep at it; wait until you’re graduated to get married; and get married before having kids. And that doesn’t even add sobriety, or avoid crime, or be thrifty, or all of that other stuff that we added. You don’t even need that, although obviously that helps.

Sure. I mean, I guess the point that to me is just hard to reconcile here is, you know, whatever your views on something like the minimum wage, wages for a big chunk of the country have been stagnant for decades. So, I guess, to tell people, like, “Take a minimum-wage …”
Yes, but for high-school graduates they’ve simply been stagnant. They have not actually declined. I know this data. I’ve looked at it very, very carefully. And here’s the other thing, even if your income as a high-school graduate is pretty modest, or even a high-school dropout, how can it be better to get a loan go it alone [note: this was a transcription error], and have children out of wedlock — how can that be a better choice than getting married and staying married to someone who also works at least part-time and contributes to the household, and sticking with that? I mean, on simple economic, microeconomic principles, that is a better choice, that is a better life course, that is a better plan for someone. It just is. So, you know, you’re gonna have to prove to me that, you know, adversity makes it quote-unquote “rational” to shoot yourself in the foot.

But do you think the response to your article is people saying, “No, it’s great to have as many kids as you want without a partner,” or do you think it has to do with this idea that as individuals, people make a cool, calculated decision, whether to embrace virtue or vice?
Well, I think here’s the problem. First of all, I have no idea what they’re objecting to. To me it is just totally incoherent, and of course none of my colleagues will even consider — one of them wrote a response on the Heterodox Academy website, which I thought was not entirely persuasive, or even very persuasive — but they won’t even engage on the merit, okay? That’s just off the table. But I think the idea is here that once again, you know, I don’t really know what they’re saying. I mean, I guess they’re not saying it’s a great thing to do … But what are they saying then?

I think they’re saying, or my argument at least, is that to a certain extent, the decisions that people make about marriage or …
Vice or virtue. They’re maximizing their well-being given the circumstances — that’s a commonplace argument. So let me tell you why that argument is really …

Sure, just so we’re clear, that’s not my argument, but …
It’s the rational actor model, but it’s too simple. I’m actually talking to Glenn Loury on Bloggingheads about that. The better model is game theoretic model, which says that people get into dysfunctional equilibria, people fall into dysfunctional equilibria, which actually are to their disadvantage. And you know what, here’s how we know that. In ordinary life, with ordinary people, here’s some of the things we say: “That person is dysfunctional,” “That person made a really bad decision,” “That person shot themselves in the foot.” Right? “If the person had made decision X instead of decision Y, done Z instead of R, they would be better off.” We say that about our kids. So, we don’t believe that people maximize their well-being through their decision-making. We honestly don’t believe that, because we don’t talk like we believe that.

But isn’t the issue less … Let’s move into a rural setting, an opioid-ravaged city, where industry has fled — there are a lot of cities like this, and they helped decide the election. One reaction to the behavior of people in a setting like that is, “Well, they’ve abandoned bourgeois values.” The other way to react is to say, “There is a drug-abuse emergency here — how do we solve that? And then maybe once we stabilize things that will affect people’s behavior.” Is that unreasonable?
Well I don’t see those two as incompatible. Obviously there is a drug-abuse emergency. Obviously it is partly driven by the economy not being what it should be. But there have been a lot of past years in which there has been economic adversity — and it hasn’t necessarily resulted in opioid epidemics. But there are a lot of things that feed into that, absolutely. I don’t know how to get out of it, but I can tell you this, just stepping back from it, sobriety is a virtue. I’ve actually had progressives sneer at me and look down on me for saying that, because it’s so unhip — that is so unhip, sobriety is a virtue? Where does that come from?

But if someone’s actually struggling with addiction, what does that do for them? Do you think they’re unaware that sobriety is a good thing to strive for?
I’m not sure, because I think they’re getting a lot of mixed messages from society. And, you know, it’s not even so much, “What do you do now, now that you’re addicted?” Although it is partly that, because people who know that sobriety is the road to a good life, and that they cannot function, and cannot have any hope of improving their lives if they stay addicted. And if we give them a good reason to improve their lives, those people will — and there are wonderful books about this, Gene Heyman’s Addiction: A Disorder of Choice. But what it really does is it stops people from even starting — that’s the thing. As discouraged as they are, as difficult as the environment is, it might stop them from starting.

So your read of the literature is that among a group of people who are vulnerable to something like addiction, increasing awareness about the benefits of sobriety could inoculate them against it? 
I don’t think it’s an intellectual exercise. It’s a matter of habits and values, that’s all. Habits and values. It’s Aristotelian, it’s not Kantian.

So norms, in other words. 
Yeah, norms. Of course. Norms and expectations about how people are supposed to behave.

One thing that jumped out a little was this idea of “the anti-assimilation ideas gaining ground among some Hispanic immigrants.” Where does that concern come from? I mean, do you see that as something that’s burgeoning at the moment? I ask just because there is a big conversation about undocumented immigration going on. 
Well, I think that it’s a way for people to sort of wall themselves off into a separate culture, and you know, not necessarily a culture that fits well with the demands of our current society. You know, people come from cultures all around the world. Many of those cultures, you know, are not terribly successful. You can tell because you go to the countries and they’re doing really poorly, and a lot of why they’re doing poorly is because of the outlook, mind-set, and behavior of the people. Take corruption, right? Take political corruption. Europe, the Anglosphere, northern Europe, has been kind of a miracle zone — and I’m not saying there’s no corruption, of course — but in being somehow able to minimize political corruption. Paul Collier at Oxford has written about this, and I think very persuasively. If you cannot banish corruption from your public dealings, your private dealings, even business, you know, on the lowest levels of operation, you have no hope of building a prosperous, orderly, safe society. You just don’t. It’s a nonstarter, it’s just a nonstarter.

But isn’t this sort of a version of the “Clash of Civilizations” argument Samuel Huntington made in the ’90s? I thought that at least when it comes to Latino immigrants, that idea had basically been debunked — that they won’t learn English, that they won’t assimilate. Because it’s one thing to talk about corruption levels as measured by the World Bank in different countries. It’s another to address the question of immigrants who come here. And my sense is that the data shows they assimilate, their kids all speak English. That is what I got from [your use of] “anti-assimilationist.” 
Well, I think the data is very equivocal on that. The children of Hispanic immigrants, some of them are doing well of course. Others, kind of have trouble in school. They actually have the lowest educational completion rate of any group — blacks get more years of education than Hispanics do. Their out-of-wedlock birthrate is soaring. This is a data point that, you know, the New York Times doesn’t want you to know about, but it’s actually occurring. So there’s trouble on the horizon here. I think the jury is out here, but I think there’s a lot of gilding the lily here. A lot of selective data citation. So we’re arguing about appearance here, aren’t we? And I’m not going to set myself up as any expert, but I think it’s a much more mixed picture than you’re making it out to be, and of course, you know, we’re talking in the near term. We don’t know what the result will be in the far term.

There’s also another thing, that people who do extremely well when they come into the dominant culture in small numbers. When there’s mass migration things change. So the numbers matter, they really, really matter. The pace matters, and all of that. I didn’t write an op-ed about the immigration problem. I’m just saying that this can be troubling. It’s potentially troubling …

Sure, but …
… for maintaining a unified cultural, you know, set of cluster, of norms and attitudes, it can be.

Sure, yes …
And that’s one of the restrictionist arguments, right, that’s one of the cultural restrictionist arguments. Certainly not a popular argument. It’s an argument that in academia is verboten, right? Verboten.

But do you think it, could it just be possible that Huntington was wrong, and some of these fears are overstated, and assimilation in the U.S. works better than some people think it does?
Well, Huntington might be wrong, but he also might be right.

So you write that, I think this is my last question, you write that, quote, “Restoring the hegemony of the bourgeois culture will require the arbiters of culture, the academics, media, and Hollywood, to relinquish multicultural grievance polemics, and the preening pretense of defending the downtrodden.” What do you think that process would look like in your view?
Oh. I think something like what Charles Murray says. You know, right now the upper-middle class is living the ’50s and preaching the ’60s, and I think they should either just shut up, and stop pushing these radical progressive ideas or they should start preaching what they’re practicing. One or the other.

Gotcha. Anything else that you wanted to at that I should have asked you?
No, but don’t get me in trouble with this interview, okay? Don’t take things out of context.

We agreed that we’ll do it verbatim, and if we don’t do it verbatim then I have to check the quotes with you.
No doctoring. No doctoring.

There will be no doctoring. I exist in a world of strong norms against doctoring. 

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