Aligned Behavior Brings Prosperity

Trust and cooperation in America have traditionally been supported by and aligned with certain core values. Values create the context for establishing relationships and pursuing common purposes. Until recently, those values were agreed upon and deemed important by most Americans. To this point, one thing Alexis de Tocqueville found “astonishing” about America was “the strange stability of certain principles”. As he traveled across America in the 1830’s, he observed these “principles” or core values being embraced by most Americans. “In the United States…”, said Tocqueville, “…general doctrines concerning religion, philosophy, morality and even politics do not vary at all.”

The reason Tocqueville found such stability among Americans is because the values were taught in homes, churches and civics classes. Those values guided the assimilation and behavioral expectations of Americans, and they created and preserved a uniquely American culture. Aligning behavior with core values continues to be an essential task of leaders and a crucial part of what Tocqueville observed.

Values not Law

It’s not unusual for people to assume that law brings order. While that may be true theoretically, order comes mostly from our voluntary compliance with the common purposes and values we share. That’s exactly what Tocqueville observed when he noted the “strange stability of certain principles” operating in America. True, law sets limits, but the core values of most people help them live life well within the limits of the law. If this weren’t true, there simply wouldn’t be enough police to enforce compliance.

Today values and culture are changing rapidly, and to some extent, our relationships, communities, businesses and organizations have suffered. We now experience less consensus regarding common values, and therefore less of a basis for trust and cooperation. We’ve replaced the flexible concept of “covenant” that Tocqueville observed with a rigid concept of contract. Instead of values like integrity and commitment binding our agreements, it’s the threat of legal action. To this point author Robert Putnam explained with a bit of sarcasm that,

“One alternative to generalized reciprocity and socialized honesty is the rule of law – formal contracts, courts, litigation, adjudication, and enforcement.  If the handshake is no longer binding and reassuring, perhaps the notarized contract, the deposition, and the subpoena will work.”

Law Can’t Build Prosperity

But building meaningful and productive relationships based primarily on legalism is virtually impossible. That’s because the by-products of this emerging culture of legalism are increasing rigidity, growing disagreements and a focus on self. In his work on trust, Mr. Fukuyama cautioned that a legalistic preoccupation with individual rights undermines American economic interests because it dissipates trust. That dissipation is evidenced in the growing frequency with which people today break commitments and look to the courts and government for resolution.

Consider that since 1950 tort costs have increased 8.7% annually. During those same years the GDP had average increases of 6.7%. Also, since 1950 tort costs have more than tripled, from .62 percent of GDP to more than 2 percent today. Total costs now exceed $260 billion and are increasing exponentially.

Granted, sometimes court action is necessary, but it seems that today’s answer to any conflict is a lawsuit. Consider a few frivolous cases cited by the Institute for Legal Reform:

  • PETA sued on behalf of monkeys for ownership of “Selfies”
  • A Colorado inmate sued the NFL over his team’s playoff loss
  • A bank robber got shot and sued the city for medical bills
  • An 8-year-old sued his aunt for a “Careless” hug

Clearly, we’re teaching Americans that prosperity comes through the courts and not through hard work and cooperation. But ultimately where does that leave us? We’ll talk more about that in next week’s blog.