A question of values

Revitalizing the American economy is a theme on everyone's mind these days. There are analyses galore of why the United States is in such deep recession and what must be done to turn things around. Behind the unemployment statistics, we are told, lies the fact that the US is undergoing a profound transition from an industrial to a postindustrial economy. The whole world in fact is said to be in the throes of a basic structural change.

But what of change in an even more fundamental sense, of ethical and social change? Is it possible that the nation's woes can be traced to an erosion of values which have long guided society and without which economic recovery may not be possible?

We are not alone in asking the question. Economists themselves are concerned about the quality of American society, in which litigation has reached unprecedented proportions, in which corporations are aggressively taking over each other, and in which special interests dominate political power. Economist Robert Reich of Harvard, describing the contemporary scene as ''cowboy capitalism,'' says there must be a reaffirmation of mutual commitment to fair treatment and a restoration of mutual trust.

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Thoughtful observations come also from independent social critics like Amitai Etzioni. This George Washington University sociologist is convinced that the rejuvenation of America will not take place without renewal of individuals, families, and institutions. He does not neglect such economic factors as infrastructure, work ethic, research and development, job training. But he worries about the rise of a mentality focused on self rather than the community, the ''excessive individualism'' and drive for ''ego fulfillment'' that have led to a weakening of families, failure of schools to develop self-discipline in students, and even a pulling apart of states and regions.

The roots of industrial deterioration, he believes, lie in certain national attitudes: the counterculture which eschewed the value of hard work and production growth in favor of pursuit of personal satisfactions; the desire for equality - not of opportunity but of a guaranteed equal future for everyone; and an environmental movement that often downgraded productivity.

Where do solutions lie? Not in more government services, in Dr. Etzioni's view. He urges revival of a sense of ''mutuality'' - a recognition that Americans need bonds with one another to sustain each other - and a return to ''civility,'' to some dedication to shared concerns.

It is indicative of our times, perhaps, that Dr. Etzioni writes with a secular thrust, avoiding religious terms. He in fact criticizes the Moral Majority, not for its strong ethical concerns but for seeking to impose its own religious beliefs on society. Yet the sociologist's views suggest the deeper need for moral and spiritual awakening.

Other voices are more explicit, such as that of Republican Mark Hatfield, who unabashedly talks of trying to ''trigger a spiritual revolution.'' In a recent interview with Christianity Today, the senator comments: ''I am dealing with political, economic, social, military, and international problems. Fundamentally , these are spiritual problems. The attempt to find a political or economic answer to a spiritual problem will never work.''

And still another outspoken view comes from Harvard dean Henry Rosovsky who recently told a conference of Western businessmen in Washington that the most important challenge confronting education today is to instill values in students - a challenge, we would add, that is no less vital in the home.

These voices may be crying in a wilderness of apathy but they deserve to be heeded. Not because society is in danger of imminent collapse. Certainly the examples of Americans working tirelessly for a community cause, of looking after each other, of leading moral and useful lives are legion. There are healthy signs, too, of efforts to strengthen families, churches, political parties, and other institutions. But what citizen does not also notice the lapses of social order - from the growing disregard of traffic laws and cheating on tax returns to the rise of criminal violence and the lowering of sexual standards.

Today's economic ills may be defined as lack of investment, or low productivity, or obsolescent industry. But these may be the superficial symptoms of something more basic, something every American needs to ponder. It is a question of values, of how individuals regard themselves and others and their relation to their Maker. America can hardly revitalize its economy without first invigorating its moral and spiritual impulses.

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