I just breezed through Michael Barone’s Hard America, Soft America. Reviewers tend to quote the following passage (p. 12).

UPDATE: see also this article by Barone which leads with the sentence I quote.

For many years I have thought it one of the peculiar features of our country that we seem to produce incompetent eighteen-year-olds but remarkably competent thirty-year-olds.

Barone’s explanation for this paradox is institutional. He argues that American public schools are Soft, meaning that participants are insulated from competition and accountability for failure. Eventually, however, Americans encounter the Hard institution of the market, which forces them to develop skills and resourcefulness.

Barone’s view of personal development is somewhat like my view of economic growth. I believe that economic growth results from trial-and-error learning, and that this process is stunted when organizations are insulated from the consequences of mistakes. If weak firms are not allowed to fail, then inefficient processes in the economy will persist.

What was disappointing about Barone’s book is his failure to address explicitly the relationships among institutional characteristics, personal values, and political beliefs. Implicit in what he writes is the assumption that institutional characteristics shape personal values and therefore political beliefs. However, this raises the question in my mind of how competitive fields like movie-making or newspaper journalism would come to be dominated by people whose political beliefs favor softness.

In contrast, George Lakoff’s Moral Politics looks to family relationships rather than institutional characteristics as the source of differences in America. He views “strict-father morality” as the basis of conservative politics and “nurturant-parent” morality as the basis of liberal politics.

For Discussion. How would you sort out the causal relationships among institutional characteristics, individual values, and political beliefs? Think of how you would use such a causal model to describe what happened in the 1980’s, when Barone argues that the corporate takeover boom and increased foreign competition served to “harden” America.