Founded by puritans, yet the inventor of tolerance

August 16, 1991

The following is adapted from an editorial in the July 20 issue of the Economist. AMERICA has many contradictions but none greater than the fact that it was founded by puritans and yet invented tolerance.

The tension between the busybodies of 1620 and the free spirits of 1776 has often marked American history: The puritan had the upper hand in Prohibition, the permissive had it in Woodstock.

Like all things American, the contrast knob is turned up highest in California.

San Franciscans treat homosexuals almost without prejudice, but 60 percent of Californians tell pollsters they want contraceptives forcibly implanted into drug-taking single mothers (thus simultaneously sanctioning fornication and eugenics).

Los Angeles allows people of every color and creed complete freedom to sink or swim, yet employs a police force notorious for its racism and violence.

America's great tradition is to be puritanical only about private behavior.

And although its public policy has often been strict (color bars, Prohibition, the death penalty), it has been far more permissive than most countries in its respect for civil liberties.

Increasingly, though, Americans are being permissive about themselves and puritanical about others.

Worse, they are ever more ready to believe that the answer to every problem is to pass a law.

To a lot of Americans it now seems that prosperity can be bought like insurance.

If you lose your job you can sue for mental distress of being fired.

If your bank goes broke the government has insured your deposits.

If you drive drunk and crash you can sue somebody for failing to warn you to stop drinking.

There is always somebody else to blame.

Contrast this with the puritanism directed at others.

Too many Americans expect greater abstinence and sexual restraint of their politicians (Gary Hart, John Tower) than they do of their teen-age children.

They reprimand a neighbor for kissing her boyfriend good-night on the steps of her house and so lowering the tone of the block (as happened in California).

They pass laws against the parking of pickups in driveways for the same reason (in Illinois).

They insist on conformity. They treat other adults as though they were children.

Much intolerance is inconsistent.

America does not punish pot smokers more heavily than murderers. But it does (in some states) mandate prison sentences for someone caught with a few grams of cocaine, yet happily allows him to buy a pistol.

To somebody who believes in tolerance, though, puritan America is not as scary as punitive America.

Crime? The majority's answer is loud: more police, more death sentences, more mandatory long sentences -- yet little community policing, little attention to prevention of any kind.

In 10 years spending on criminal justice has risen twice as fast as spending on health.

The homeless? Unable to afford to build cheap housing, city governments have begun to ban begging.

Health? The most popular solution to uncontrolled, unaccountable medical bills is to force them on to employers or taxpayers, which only makes them more uncontrollable and unaccountable.

Race? Pass laws that require positive discrimination and job quotas for minorities and let merit go hang.

Twenty years ago America thought it could bribe problems away with money; now it seems to think it can banish them with laws.

On pollution, for instance, the conventional response has rapidly become a moral reprimand preferably aimed at industry rather than consumers: Ban sulfur emission and disposable diapers; leave gasoline untaxed and road use free.

Never mind that sulphur does far less damage to forests than car exhaust or that cotton diapers cause four times as much water pollution and twice as much air pollution to make, wash and get rid of as disposable ones.

The most pernicious form of intolerance is "political correctness," because it comes disguised as tolerance.

But imposing new orthodoxy is not the way to tackle prejudice.

University restrictions are in marked contrast to the freedom and tolerance with which those same students were treated by their parents and schoolteachers just a few years earlier.

They were given unimaginable license to drive cars, stay out late, watch violent films, earn a living at supermarket checkouts.

In 1988, 38 percent of 17-year-old American girls had had sex, compared with 23 percent in 1973.

As for younger children, parents prefer to nurture their self-esteem than use discipline.

Teen-agers are treated as adults. Yet when they get to university they are suddenly plunged back into a world of condescending "because I say so" conformity.

Social engineering is out of fashion in Eastern Europe.

In its place there could, with any luck, emerge a culture that recognizes the need to achieve social order by offering incentives, not by handing down instructions.

The pioneer of that philosophy was America. If its people go the other way they won't be the only losers.

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