Robert Knight

The perfect storm arrived with the advent of mass media. Television replaced community activities as people became isolated from family and neighbors. Like a cute little bear cub, TV seemed harmless at first, reflecting American values in programs like “Leave It to Beaver” and “The Andy Griffith Show.” But the cub soon morphed into a hungry monster that ate everything in sight, making Sheriff Andy Taylor obsolete and transforming Mayberry into a never-was myth. One of the saddest outcomes is that so many young people think that TV’s “The Waltons” and other depictions of close families and communities are an unattainable fantasy or anachronisms like Amish bonnets and buggies.

It used to be that you had to go to the big city to get corrupted. Smut and prostitution were confined to the seedy side of town. But television, videos, movies, and the Internet brought smut to even the most isolated hamlets, ensnaring men who grew accustomed to using women rather than cherishing them.

As personal responsibility faded, more people became enchanted by government’s siren song of dependency and entitlement. Do you remember the pony-tailed guy who asked the signature question during a televised presidential debate in 1992? He defined the American people as “symbolically the children of the future president,” and asked the candidates how they were going to “meet our needs.” He could be the poster child today for ObamaCare.

For most of America’s history, the social and political culture cultivated virtue and discouraged vice while affording hitherto unimagined human liberty. But the nation’s flaws – most strikingly slavery – have become the media and educational narrative, not the exceptions to the American Dream.

The mystic chords of memory can be revived and strengthened, but it takes conscious effort. When he was a teenager, our first and greatest president, George Washington, compiled a list of do’s and don’ts that promote manners, because, he explained, personal vices have public consequences.

Rule #109 in Rules of Civility is: “Let your recreations be manful, and not sinful.” Contrast that with remarks that Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts made a couple of years ago to

“I would let people gamble on the Internet. I would let adults smoke marijuana; I would let adults do a lot of things, if they choose.” Well, okay. The law is not a nanny. But here’s the devil’s deal again. Personal vice abets government power.

Mr. Frank has worked tirelessly to expand federal power through higher taxes and abominations such as ObamaCare and the Dodd-Frank financial regulations. Mr. Frank wants the government to have even more power over people’s money, jobs and housing because of a lack of personal responsibility on some people’s part:

“… Allowing them total freedom to take on economic obligations that spill over into the broader society, or have a house in a neighborhood -- which when they go bankrupt becomes a fire hazard for their neighbors … the impact goes well beyond the individual."

Mr. Frank is right about that much. Greed and irresponsibility affect others. But so do other vices that don’t seem to bother Mr. Frank, such as sex outside marriage, drug abuse, gambling, divorce, abortion and indolence. They all give government an excuse to grow bigger to pick up the pieces. It’s devilishly effective.

Despite all of this, Americans are not without hope if we return to first principles and heed Washington’s advice about the danger of unbridled impulses: “In all cases of passion, admit reason to govern.”

We must hope and pray that at least five Supreme Court justices employ reason to put a brake on the ObamaCare express that could take America past the point of no return.

Then we need to rebuild America’s culture from the ground up. You don’t have to be Amish to understand that personal responsibility is indispensable to a self-governing society.

Robert Knight

Robert Knight is an author, senior fellow for the American Civil Rights Union and a frequent contributor to Townhall.