This week we bring you recent pieces on two of our long-standing interests: shifting norms in public discourse, particularly on college campuses (see Vol. 65, Vol. 49, Vol. 2) and public proposals for stabilizing America’s labor market.

After an unfortunate incident at Middlebury College, Charles Murray’s book from the mid-1990s, The Bell Curve, has returned to public attention. Murray’s controversial claims about the dynamics of social stratification have universities and student organizations debating whether or not he should be allowed to speak at public universities. Recently, an duo of ideologically disparate Ivy League professors – Cornel West and Robert P. George – have come to Murray’s defense. Writing for the Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf calls attention to another chapter in this unlikely alliance in support of classical liberal values.

In Friedersdorf’s telling, the current struggle, both on college campuses and within our broader culture, is between a newly insurgent “illiberalism” and the “sleeping giant of classical liberalism” that George and West embody and defend. And what does that sleeping giant profess? In a public statement with over 2,300 signatures, George and West declare that “All of us should be willing—even eager—to engage with anyone who is prepared to do business in the currency of truth-seeking discourse by offering reasons, marshaling evidence, and making arguments.” There are limits, of course, to free speech, but in the view of George and West, those limits are imposed by the exercise of intellectual virtues (they list the love of truth, openness of mind, and humility) rather than a set of predetermined rules that discriminate between acceptable speech and voices that should be silenced.

This week we also noticed an exchange on the Universal Basic Income and, interestingly, an alternative proposal called a “job guarantee” or the “employer of last resort.” While readers will remember that the UBI has garnered admiration on both ends of the political spectrum, Jeff Spross’s defense of a federal job guarantee is, at this juncture, a proposal emerging from the left. His defense of the proposal, however, depends on a widely-held view about the relation of work to dignity. A job, he says, “is not merely a delivery mechanism for income that can be replaced by an alternative source. It’s a fundamental way that people assert their dignity, stake their claim in society, and understand their mutual obligations to one another.” Moreover:

For this reason, just as the Universal Basic Income seeks to solve the problem of a lack of money by distributing cash directly, the “employer of last resort” proposal takes on the lack of jobs by expanding the federal government’s reach into the labor market. And it does so at great cost. By creating a new federal agency and guaranteeing a job with wages at roughly $25,000/year, Spross’s proposal comes with a pricetag of 670 billion dollars in its first year. Spross is clear to say, however, that the spillover effects of the policy would likely lead to reduced inflation, enhanced consumer spending, and, in time, increases in the standard of living for most (if not all) Americans.

Writing for the New Republic, Jonathan Malesic counters Spross by questioning the tight link in American culture between work and dignity. In fact, he says, “America would be better off if we divorced dignity from work altogether.” This is not to suggest that work does not provide people with social benefit or meaning, but rather that making work the primary (or sole) source of meaning and social respect is a losing strategy, for two reasons: In the first place, the promise of a guaranteed job does “not do much good who are not able to work.” And secondly, Malesic argues that Spross’s proposal fails to pay sufficient attention to the hidden sources of America’s wealth. Though social capital does not itself generate wealth, Malesic cites Ryan Avent’s recent work showing that America’s massive wealth is due, in part, to the set of moral norms that allow commerce to flourish. As he puts it:

In the digital age, wealth is not only created by workers and owners. Productivity derives not only from labor and hard capital, but also from social capital—the matrix of beliefs, values, and customs that members of a society share…values like tolerance and the rule of law—which no one can claim as exclusively theirs—make it easy to do business in America. They make American labor and capital more productive.

This, for Malesic, is a primary justification for the kind of wealth redistribution a Universal Basic Income represents. If the wealth of a society is due, in part, to social norms common to all, little else is needed to argue that the basic needs of every member of that society should be met: “Because everyone contributes to creating wealth, regardless of whether they work or not, everyone deserves a share in that wealth.”


Our conviction here at New City Commons is that understanding the cultural trends that shape our lives requires sustained attention to the ways ideas, habits, patterns of speech, and social practices change over time. If, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it in his Ethics, “wisdom is recognizing the significant within the factual,” we must begin by attending to the concrete realities that create “the factual” through time. As far back as Vol. 2, we claimed that “moral communities are, at bottom, linguistic communities”; at other junctures, we’ve chronicled the rise of an ethic of “allyship” at elite universities (Vol. 49), as well as debates over the norms governing emerging adulthood (Vol. 5) and universities as quasi-public spaces (Vol. 65). As we continue to track these trends, we’d encourage you to dip into the archives and read along with us.