Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The V-Words

One of the best-kept secrets in such times is that virtue is efficient. The prevailing view, instead, is that virtue is weak, the mark of the timid; it’s easily shouldered aside by the aggressively competing. The Lords of the Universe didn’t earn their red suspenders by their virtue; they earned them by taking huge risks, cutting corners, and trampling the weak on their way to the top.

Now, of course, people admire success but want their children to be virtuous. The popular media, in response, have produced a kind neo-archetype of the hero. He keeps returning in endless variations. He is a cop so deeply committed to justice that he takes the law into his own hands. That commitment is supposed to stand for virtue; that breaking of rules is supposed to be the much admired aggression. He tramples all over the “bureaucratic” rules, hunts and destroys the criminals, and, with the deus ex-machina of the film-maker, manages to escape the consequences of his transgressions against the public order. Somehow the film neglects to tell us who pays for the dozens of cars and scores of storefronts and bridges destroyed in the big chase. Another version is the “virtuous thief.” He is a fantastically clever jewel thief or bank robber—but his crimes are packaged as punishment for the wicked Big Powers of Money. In the midst of some heist he turns into a supercop and thus, balancing his small crime by solving some Big Crime, emerges washed clean and pure with a halo and the love of the incompetent but luscious female detective whom he helps—and who therefore gets all the credit.

Now back in the real world, vice is destructive  and virtue is efficient, and one does not smoothly morph into the other. The real world, however, operates on another time scale than the movies. Processes are slow. Decades pass as virtue is watered down by complex processes of compromise and what is known as a vicious cycle develops. Its earmarks are weakening of regulations and slackening enforcement, spending what has not been earned, thus mining the future, compressing time, thus working for the near- at the cost of the long term, manipulating perception rather than seeking the truth, and hyping vice under the guise of freedom and self-expression.

The virtuous cycle is equally slow in its development. It depends on patience, savings, self-restraint. Precisely because such behavior is difficult, it values education and training; both are productive of a realistic view of life; you don’t get something for nothing; pay me now or pay me later; results equal effort; do unto others; etc. In the virtuous cycle gains are small—but they cumulate through savings; they are invested carefully, hence they have small rather than “insanely great” returns. The long-term view, therefore is natural. The virtuous cycle, like the vicious, has a tendency of growing exponentially. In due time it produces great wealth. And there we find its Achilles heel. Wealth becomes habitual. The virtues begin eroding. And the first cracks appear. Bits of stone start trickle out; water seeps in. A vicious cycle is born.

Alas. One always seems to beget the other. My hope is that a virtuous cycle is now beginning—and may explain why nothing exciting is happening out there. It takes a lot of time for the buried ants to emerge from the rubble of the collapsed structure and then, in the open again, to start rebuilding a virtuous hill.

1 comment:

  1. The repeating theme of the ying and the yang... Very nicely put!