So how did the Greatest Generation, known for its sacrifices, produce a generation so focused on economic self-interest and so seemingly unwilling to sacrifice for the good of the country? That is a bit of a mystery, but we will put forth two theories.
First, our generation generally avoided military service. As we baby boomers became adults, less than 1 percent of the population served in the military. In WWII, that figure was over 10 percent. Two of the great lessons of military service are one, country before self and two, trust in leadership and authority. With relatively few of us sharing the bonds, lessons, and sacrifices of military service, perhaps there is little widespread experiential counterbalance to each of us pursuing only our self-interest.
The second theory, on the other hand, goes deeper into our country’s structural economic problems—those that have precipitated the decline of a middle-class majority and the ascent of more powerful, but divergent self-interest groups.
Indeed, if we examine the economic and political principles that have worked together to serve us so well for 200 years, we see that today they seem to be working against each other instead. Our economic foundational principles are grounded in the free enterprise system as so beautifully described in Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. Smith posited correctly that the greatest amount of societal wealth would be created through the invisible hand of the marketplace if individuals (and enterprises) were allowed to pursue their economic self interests. Our political foundational principle, on the other hand, is “one person, one vote.” Our founding fathers believed that if we give a political voice to the Great Majority, diverse interest would produce a fair and just society.
There will always be tension between those with wealth, trying to keep it or get more of it, and those without wealth, trying to get it.