How the Modern World Made Cowards of Us All

Dana Carvey of “Saturday Night Live” used to do a funny impression of President George H. W. Bush, in which the character would justify his own supposed timidity by muttering “wouldn’t be prudent” to himself about every small risk. The impression neatly captured the contemporary notion of prudence: faintheartedness, caution and a general bias against action.

.. The connotation of prudence as caution, or aversion to risk, is a modern invention. “Prudence” comes from the Latin “prudentia,” meaning sagacity or expertise. The earliest English uses from the 14th century had little to do with fearfulness or habitual reluctance. Rather, it signified righteous decision making that is rooted in acuity and practical wisdom.

.. We have refashioned prudence into an excuse for cowardice, hiding behind the language of virtue to avoid what he calls “the embarrassing situation of having to be brave.” The correct definition, Mr. Pieper argued, is the willingness to do the right thing, even if that involves fear and risk.

.. to be rash is only one breach of true prudence. It is also a breach to be timid.

.. Once you start looking for this imprudently risk-averse behavior, you see it everywhere, particularly among young people.

.. True prudence means eschewing safety and familiarity in favor of entrepreneurial living. It requires clear eyes, a courageous heart and an adventurous spirit.

What’s the Matter With Republicans?

Why do working-class conservatives seem to vote so often against their own economic interests?

My stab at an answer would begin in the 18th and 19th centuries. Many Trump supporters live in places that once were on the edge of the American frontier. Life on that frontier was fragile, perilous, lonely and remorseless. If a single slip could produce disaster, then discipline and self-reliance were essential. The basic pattern of life was an underlying condition of peril, warded off by an ethos of self-restraint, temperance, self-control and strictness of conscience.

.. Today these places are no longer frontier towns, but many of them still exist on the same knife’s edge between traditionalist order and extreme dissolution.

.. Many people in these places tend to see their communities the way foreign policy realists see the world: as an unvarnished struggle for resources — as a tough world, a no-illusions world, a world where conflict is built into the fabric of reality.

.. The virtues most admired in such places, then and now, are what Shirley Robin Letwin once called the vigorous virtues: “upright, self-sufficient, energetic, adventurous, independent minded, loyal to friends and robust against foes.”

.. The sins that can cause the most trouble are not the social sins — injustice, incivility, etc. They are the personal sins — laziness, self-indulgence, drinking, sleeping around.

.. Moreover, the forces of social disruption are visible on every street: the slackers taking advantage of the disability programs, the people popping out babies, the drug users, the spouse abusers.

.. In their view, government doesn’t reinforce the vigorous virtues. On the contrary, it undermines them — by fostering initiative-sucking dependency, by letting people get away with their mistakes so they can make more of them and by getting in the way of moral formation.

The only way you build up self-reliant virtues, in this view, is through struggle. Yet faraway government experts want to cushion people from the hardships that are the schools of self-reliance. Compassionate government threatens to turn people into snowflakes.

.. a woman from Louisiana complaining about the childproof lids on medicine and the mandatory seatbelt laws. “We let them throw lawn darts, smoked alongside them,” the woman says of her children. “And they survived. Now it’s like your kid needs a helmet, knee pads and elbow pads to go down the kiddy slide.”

.. they perceive government as a corrupt arm used against the little guy. She argues that these voters may vote against their economic interests, but they vote for their emotional interests, for candidates who share their emotions about problems and groups.

.. I’d say they believe that big government support would provide short-term assistance, but that it would be a long-term poison to the values that are at the core of prosperity.