A Worried America

by Gunnar Myrdal

Dr. Myrdal, an economist, is the author of An American Dilemma — a classic work on race relations in the U. first published in 1944 — and of An American Dilemma Revisited, A sequel nearing completion.

His article is adapted from an address delivered at the tenth annual meeting of the Lutheran Council in the USA. This article appeared in the Christian Century December 14, 1977, p. 1161.  Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Social science is a moral science and economics is political economy. Questions about dogma or even faith shrink to insignificance in a world in which the very existence of humanity is threatened.

My entire working life has been devoted to the study of economic, social and political problems in Sweden, America and the world. In insisting, I express my Lutheran heritage -- though of course the influence of other Christian churches has moved in the same direction. In fact by stressing that social sciences must be moral sciences, I am in line with the classical doctrine as it developed in Calvinistic England and Scotland.

A hundred or 200 years ago my forerunners among political economists could find their valuational moorings in the philosophies of natural right and utilitarianism, which in their turn were based on the associational psychology of hedonism -- and which are now, in my view, defunct. I had to seek other ways of ascertaining and expressing the value premises basic to my work. Without going into the complex methodological problems of what social science research is and should be, I will merely stress that the scientific study of society must allow a proper place for human valuations. It must be a moral science. The scientist has therefore both the right and the duty to draw rational policy conclusions as to what is bad and what is good, and how humans and their society should be reformed.

Devotion to Enlightenment

Let me in this attempt at self-analysis go one step further and try to explore how the development of the world through the more than 50 years of my working life has reflected itself in my conception of this world. My experience can be seen as typical of a whole generation in our Western culture, not least in America.

I lived through my early youth during World War I. Sweden had succeeded in staying out of the war and so was a peaceful country to grow up in. During that war America was not entirely unlike Sweden. Even though, rather late, the U.S. was brought into the war, most young people of our age were not in the fighting forces, and the combat took place far from American shores without rendering much damage to the country. There was neither television nor radio. We read about the war in newspapers, but did not witness the ordeals of Europe in the forceful way that we now experience all the horrors of the world that are continuously. thrust upon us. We could devote ourselves to the task of trying to find an intellectual and moral anchorage.

The period before World War I was an optimistic era of belief in progress. Trust in human progress colored the literature at the disposal of young people. Democracy was not only a fact in some countries of Europe as in America but seemed also to be the inevitable historical trend in the world. As reflected in that literature; it was taken for granted that even, for instance, Germany and Russia would develop into parliamentary democracies. I remember that I myself could play with certain romantic feelings for Napoleon. The idea that one man could ever again emerge as a dictator in a civilized country was unthinkable in the literature we were nurtured on.

The huge underdeveloped regions and the great poverty among the masses there were largely beyond our horizon. The colonial power structure, then assumed to be a firm and lasting situation, functioned as a shield for the conscience, freeing a Swede or an American from feeling remorse for the suffering of the peoples living in that part of the world, about which there was not much publicity anyhow. We succeeded in thinking of them in the romantic terms of their unfamiliar and often beautiful dress, their dances and music, their ruins and temples and their interesting but strange religions and philosophies. This moral disengagement, broken only by the missionaries -- mostly of low-church varieties and not intent upon political change -- lasted until after World War II, when the decolonization movement emerged as that war’s perhaps most important consequence, though it had not been foreseen and had still less been an aim in the developed countries. In any case, to teen-agers in Sweden the global view during World War I was restricted to a view of the independent and advanced countries.

The war going on in Europe was felt to be a stupendous but unique crime which should not and could not be repeated. This armed conflict was called the Great War, or in America the European War. We had not yet got into the habit of reckoning world wars in numbers. The thought was that when the fighting was over, peace and democracy would be secured. In thinking about what was to come when the war was over, people spoke in terms of “back to normalcy,” which meant back to progress in a stable world. After World War II that idea of normalcy disappeared. But at that earlier time this is what people believed in and prepared themselves for.

Within that narrow limitation of our world view in the advanced countries there was space for considerable diversity in intellectual explorations. We could, and did, indulge in the pessimism of a Schopenhauer or in the aggressive egocentricity of a Nietzsche. Some aligned themselves with Marx. I studied him as an important classical author but was more influenced by the French and English utopian socialists who, unlike Marx, were planners in the great tradition of the Enlightenment philosophy. Indeed, it was the Enlightenment philosophers and their followers throughout the 19th century and right up to World War I under whose influence I grew up. It was in this line of thought that the common trust in progress could prevail.

From the beginning, this philosophical tradition, like broad Christianity, gave an optimistic conception of the world. Both trusted fundamentally in people’s opportunity to improve themselves and the society in which they lived. Both recognized evil but saw the prospect of the amelioration of personal and social life -- in religious terms, of “conversion.” This is the spiritual heritage I have preserved, and it has become deeply rooted in my way of feeling and thinking.

‘An American Dilemma’

When later I studied American society from the viewpoint of its most disadvantaged group, the blacks, I formulated my value premises in terms of the ideals contained in what I called the American creed of liberty, equality, justice and the rule of law and not persons. I identified these ideals with enlightenment philosophy, which 200 years ago had provided much of the inspiration for the revolution against the English crown and the founding of the American nation. But I also stressed their roots in Christianity. The last single word in An American Dilemma is “Enlightenment,” as I had decided it must be at the time I was working on the book.

The American creed was not my invention. These ideals were a living reality commonly accepted by Americans on a high level of valuations -- accepted, as I found, by the oppressors as well as the oppressed, and written into the constitutional documents. Indeed, the American nation, more than any other nation I knew, had equipped itself with a definite moral code for human relations that was outspoken and clear. My research was, of course, directed toward ascertaining the facts and the causal relationships between the facts, as they manifested themselves toward the end of the 1930s and the beginning of the 1940s. But these facts were looked upon from the viewpoint of the American creed. That system of ideals determined the questions I raised.

That the prescripts of this national ethos were not complied with but broken in a large-scale, systematic and often horrible way created a dilemma, which again was not my invention but an observable fact. In my research I had to deal with morals, private and public. My study was, of course, not simply moralistic. It became a study of morals, not in morals.

In the late Roosevelt era America was much poorer than now. Large numbers were living in destitution. Unemployment was still very high, though declining. But there was confidence that the nation was steering in the right direction. There was trust in the future and in America’s capacity to improve itself.

At the helm was Franklin D. Roosevelt, who inaugurated social reforms on a broad scale and so virtually initiated America’s approach to the welfare state, important to Roosevelt’s success in bringing the nation along with him was the human touch he displayed in what he said and did. He felt for the poor and downtrodden. And he stressed the need for reforms as a moral issue.

“I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished,” he said in his second inaugural address. He urged “moral controls . . . over blind economic forces and blindly selfish men.” He talked about “social justice” and saw a “change in the moral climate of America.” He stressed that “the test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.” And he had Eleanor, that unequaled lady who functioned as a sort of extraconstitutional executive-interpreter, expressing and accentuating this bent of mind.

I saw in the American creed more than a set of instrumental value premises for use in my work. Despite continuing gross noncompliance with its precepts, and despite setbacks and long periods of reaction, I saw the gradual fulfillment of these ideals as a determining trend. And I found reason to believe that this trend would accelerate in the future. This was the optimism in the study.

At that time, however, there had been six decades of relative stagnation in race relations since the national compromise in the 1870s after the Civil War and Reconstruction. In the social sciences, we are too often apt to extrapolate from what has gone before, and most of my colleagues shared a static and fatalistic view of the future. They were mostly inclined to deprecate hopes for the success of reform movements and, generally, of organized efforts to change society. In this field William Graham Sumner’s old dictum that ‘stateways cannot change folkways” remained the basic preconception.

From close observation and analysis of what was happening, particularly in the south where three-quarters of the blacks then lived, I concluded that this long era of stagnation was coming to an end. I even concluded that “not since Reconstruction has there been more reason to anticipate fundamental changes in American race relations; changes that will involve a development toward American ideals.”

Economic conditions for the blacks were worsening, but in all other respects there was a gradual and visible improvement of the lot of black people. This movement had been speeded up by the New Deal. Meanwhile isolation between blacks and whites had been increasing for some time. I could on the basis of my study of ongoing changes predict the black revolt and predict that it would originate in the south.

The Dilemma Revisited

Now after more than 30 years I have returned to the problems of race relations in America with An American Dilemma Revisited: The Racial Crisis in the United States in Perspective. I have taken the findings in the old book as a firm baseline for the study of the dynamics in more recent decades. I decided to use again the ideals of the American creed as the instrumental value premises. In what meanwhile has happened to race relations in America, I find no reason to surrender my contention that a gradually ever-fuller realization of the ideals contained in that national ethos is more than a selected viewpoint when observing and analyzing the facts; it is and will remain the historical trend of change in this country -- in a sense the destiny of America, if America is not going to give up its essential national personality. Here I stick to my basic optimism from the Roosevelt era and, further back, to my devotion to Enlightenment and to the influence of my Lutheran heritage.

Certainly, if we take the broad view, the conditions of life and work for black people have improved much during the past 35 years. There have been setbacks, and the advance has been uneven -- more pronounced for the professional middle class than for the working class. There has been less advance for the poor masses in the growing urban ghettos and for many blacks still working in southern agriculture. Again in the broad view, their facilities for health and education have been improving. Jim Crow in the south, which at the time of An American Dilemma was still a firmly functioning institutional system, has crumpled and disappeared. Legislation and, though less perfectly, its implementation have increasingly awarded blacks their full civil rights. At the same time, public opinion polls demonstrate a continuous improvement in the dominant white population groups’ ideas about black people and how they should be treated. In some respects the south is advancing more rapidly than the north.

What has been happening can from one point of view be described as a change in the fundamental purpose of the liberalization process. What was a fight for civil rights has broadened into strivings for equal human rights. The reforms have come to concern all disadvantaged groups, including women. At the same time, blacks have increasingly become actors on the scene who have to consider strategy and tactics. The problem of race relations is no longer merely a “white man’s problem,” as I could realistically characterize it 35 years ago. Blacks, like whites, are now facing the dilemma, and their own actions have considerable influence on the development of race relations.

The broad view I have hinted at is important. Nonetheless, there is a long way to go before blacks are commonly afforded equal opportunities in the pursuit of happiness. There is still much segregation and discrimination, and even if poverty-stricken blacks are only one-third at most of all the poor in America, poor people are a much larger proportion of the black population than of the white.

A Multifaceted Crisis

Meanwhile, America in the 1970s has gone into a multifaceted crisis. Economically it is manifested in what we have come to call “stagflation” -- high unemployment combined with inflation of prices. As always, it presses with particular hurtfulness upon the poor. We know that black youth in some of the city slums have a real rate of joblessness approaching 50 per cent, leaving them to walk the streets hungry and without a decent means of earning a living. That crime, prostitution and drug traffic are seen as a way out should surprise nobody.

The country has also experienced the catastrophic end of an illegal, immoral and cruel war in Indochina. Meanwhile, it has seen the revelation of a continuous sequence of gross scandals of which Watergate was only the culmination. It is a fortunate and healthy manifestation of America as an open democracy that members of Congress and the mass media do their utmost not to cover up the transgressions of laws and of common decency but to give the whole world and, to begin with, the American nation itself full information.

As a result Americans have, however, to an unprecedented extent, lost confidence in their national institutions. As the opinion polls tell us, never before has people’s trust in the administration, in Congress and in business reached such a low ebb. And the level of participation -- in elections for instance -- is low. Lack of participation and a sense of apathy, particularly but not exclusively among the lower classes, have always been a weakness in the workings of American democracy, but now this unconcern and the absence of a sense of individual responsibility for the nation threaten to become more widespread.

Everyone who has a voice, and particularly the clergy of our churches, ought to uphold the responsibility of the individual citizen for what happens in the country. What America needs is not to forget what has gone wrong but to face the wrongdoings squarely and to insist that they shall not happen again. In moral terms this implies the need for a catharsis.

The shameful McCarthy period, when so many of those higher up kept silent for so long, was ended when ordinary Americans saw on television how that man behaved. I don’t believe something similar to the McCarthy era will happen again. But I would feel surer if I had seen more careful study about how it could ever have happened.

The Vietnam war was not only a gross miscalculation, politically and militarily, but a moral wrong inflicted by a massive use of cruel weapons forbidden by international law, mostly against poor and innocent civilians. Again, it is not enough to forget about it and to keep up a self-righteous and aggressive front toward the world. Americans must honestly face what for a long time they have permitted their government to do. Otherwise they will not be cured of the evil.

Again now, with all the widely publicized misdeeds of elected or appointed officials and important hoards of big corporations, it is not enough to live with the opened-up knowledge of scandals. Serious self-scrutiny by all citizens is imperative. To be a citizen of a democratic nation implies being morally responsible for not letting things that are wrong happen without protest.

And everyone who teaches or preaches or has a responsibility for others who do these tasks has a particular duty to recognize evil and to lead his or her flock also to recognize it and to stand up against it. What is at stake in the present many-faceted crisis in America is nothing less than the nation’s soul.

The International Setting

The crisis in America is taking place in a world threatened by truly frightful dangers. The income gap between developed and underdeveloped countries is steadily widening. Our aid has been marginal and has never implied any real sacrifices. In the U.S., aid has continually been motivated by “the United States’ best interests,” and these interests have been explained in terms of political, military and strategic advantages in the raging cold war. This concern has also determined distribution of aid among poor nations. The statistics on development aid have been juggled, and economists have winked at them. But even accepting the publicized figures at their face value, U.S. aid has been decreasing much more than that of other rich countries.

The popular lack of interest in America for aiding poor countries is to me explained by the fact that ordinary Americans have seldom been appealed to in terms of moral decency and compassion for the sufferings of the poor masses in the underdeveloped countries but merely in terms of national policy interests. When then these policies misfired, as they did not only in Indochina, the lack of interest in helping, poor countries reached its present state.

Meanwhile, poverty among the masses in most underdeveloped countries has been increasing; it reached culmination a few years ago during the oil and food crisis. America was niggardly with its food aid, and its government was pleased that the high food prices improved its balance of trade. Meanwhile hundreds of millions in underdeveloped countries went hungry and tens of millions starved.

The population explosion is still going on and will go on. Family planning will not be effective in stopping it until individual couples have the feeling that they are living in a dynamic society that gives them hope of improving their lot. With this rising population and the lack of radical reform in most underdeveloped countries, particularly in the rural communities where the large masses of these people live, the world food crisis will recur when again the crops are less favorable; the danger is that it will then gradually take on an ever more permanent and disastrous dimension.

Meanwhile, there is a steady deterioration of our environment, poisoning the land, the waters, the plants, the animals and, indeed, our own bodies. There have, been efforts here and there, but on the whole we have not been successful at stopping pollution. A large part of the problem is international and can be solved only by international negotiation and regulation, of which we have seen little. At the same time we are in many respects depleting humankind’s nonrenewable resources. The larger part of this process is carried on by the small minority of people in the developed countries, who consume by far the largest part of these and other resources.

Unconcern for the Underdeveloped

The underdeveloped countries are demanding a new economic world order. Even when in some developed countries (though least so in the United States) governments are expressing sympathy for these demands, they have little response at home among their own people. And in the present situation of stagflation, their policy interests are directed toward their relations with the newly rich oil-exporting countries and with one another. Relations with the great majority of humankind in underdeveloped countries fall into the shadow of unconcern.

Although direct confrontations have as yet been avoided between the developed countries, wars have been going on in the underdeveloped world. They have not been prevented or stopped, as they should have been according to the charter of the United Nations. Many of them, as in the Middle East, have taken on the character of “wars by proxy” between the superpowers, which have armed their sides in the struggle.

Meanwhile the arms race continues unabated. We all know that the costs of armaments amount to as much as the total production and income of the poorer half of humankind. In a strange “cooperation” the superpowers have succeeded in stalling all disarmament negotiations or have made the agreements reached narrowly partial and ineffective.

The arms race is led by the two superpowers  -- the U.S.S.R. and the U.S. Together they account for 60 per cent of the world’s military expenditures and 75 per cent of the world’s arms exports. Both of them long ago equipped themselves with enough nuclear weapons to destroy each other almost 50 times. In a confrontation the rest of the world would also be destroyed and quite probably the earth would become uninhabitable. Toward the end of his life Bertrand Russell calculated at only 50 per cent the probability that humanity will survive the next turn of the century.

The underlying idea of the nuclear arms race  -- that the superpowers need to “balance” each other -- is totally irrational for both of them. They have long ago reached the level of needed “deterrence,” the only rational motive. The military policies of the United States as well as those of the Soviet Union amount to a fantastically gross miscalculation. Either of them could safely have stopped the nuclear arms race unilaterally many years ago. And this fallacious idea of the need to “balance” each other in destructive power has come to be regarded as self-evident to the people of America -- because of what President Dwight Eisenhower in his last message to the American people called the “military-industrial complex” and what Alva Myrdal in her book The Game of Disarmament calls the “arms race within the arms race.

Wars are fought with increasing disrespect for international law established for protection of the civilian population, and war preparations are made with the same disrespect for international law and plain decency. Organized terrorist activities are engaged in, endorsed by some governments and meeting no effective protest from other governments. Torture has become a regular practice in an increasing number of countries -- among them some of America’s closest allies. Violence and crime are increasing almost everywhere. The use of drugs is on the rise.

An Unchanged Credo

This is the international setting within which America’s national crisis is developing. Irrationality and immorality go together. It was the firm conviction of secular philosophy as well as religious teaching in my youth that morals and rational reasoning lead to the same conclusions, and this was the basis of the trust in progress I was brought up with.

I began by relating how I could grow up as a believer in the reform of humans and their society. But I am growing old and nearing the end of my life in a situation rapidly approaching disaster.

My ideals, however, have not changed. Nor am I prepared to give up my basic trust that human beings are good. When a realistic analysis produces a gloomy picture, I am nonetheless not prepared to be a defeatist. My voice and the voices of those who share my anxieties are not strong among those who decide for nations. But till the end they should be raised in defense of our inherited ideals.

In the very last pages of An American Dilemma I referred to the great tradition of Enlightenment and the American Revolution and continued with what I called “a personal note”:

Studying human beings and their behavior is not discouraging. When the author recalls the long gallery of persons whom, in the course of this inquiry, he has come to know with the impetuous but temporary intimacy of the stranger -- sharecroppers and plantation owners, workers and employers, merchants and bankers, intellectuals, preachers, organization leaders, political bosses, gangsters, black and white, men and women, young and old, Southerners and Northerners -- the general observation retained is the following: Behind all outward dissimilarities, behind their contradictory valuations, rationalizations, vested interests, group allegiances and animosities, behind fears and defense constructions, behind the role they play in life and the mask they wear, people are all much alike on a fundamental level And they are all good people. They want to be rational and just. They all plead to the conscience that they meant well even when things went wrong.

Social study is concerned with explaining why all these potentially and intentionally good people so often make life a hell for themselves and each other when they live together, whether in a family, a community, a nation or a world. The fault is certainly not with becoming organized per se. In their formal organizations, as we have seen, people invest their highest ideals. These institutions regularly direct the individual toward more cooperation and justice than he would be inclined to observe as an isolated private person. The fault is, rather, that our structures of organizations are too imperfect, each by itself, and badly integrated into a social whole.

The rationalism and moralism which is the driving force behind social study, whether we admit it or not, is the faith that institutions can be improved and strengthened and that people are good enough to live a happier life. With all we know today, there should be the possibility to build a nation and a world where people’s great propensities for sympathy and cooperation would not be so thwarted.

And this is still my credo!

The Church’s Role

Let me add a few points about the duties of the church. First, in the present extremely perilous situation of America and the world the servants of the church cannot afford to turn their interest merely to the salvation of the individual, forgetting that society must be radically reformed. The church must stand up for human ideals and their realization through policies by governments local, state and federal, for which they share responsibility. People must be taught to understand that their actions as citizens and members of other organized groups  -- for instance, trade unions -- must be judged from a moral point of view.

Second, as we are all weak against the forces of ignorance and evil, we must join forces with all others who share our moral concern about the development of our society, whatever church they belong to or even if they do not belong to any church. This to me is the most compelling reason for my high appreciation of the ecumenical movement. Questions about dogma or even faith shrink to insignificance in a world where there is uncertainty whether any human beings will be left at the turn of the century.

Third, we must seek to show the courage of our convictions. Within the field in which I am working -- race relations in the United States -- I am well aware that church leaders have continually stood up for the righteous cause and have often persuaded their churches when they meet in assembly to express themselves for principles along the same line, even when that course was not always popular. But I have also seen how in the local situation the clergy have sometimes adjusted themselves to the prejudices of the members of their churches. Thus in many southern cities private academies, established to circumvent the Supreme Court’s decision ordering the end of school segregation, have been founded by churches.

Whereas in Sweden a Lutheran pastor is a highly paid public official, in the U.S. a pastor has to please a local membership in order to get and hold secure employment. The temptation is then great to play down the social gospel and to focus one’s teaching on the salvation of the individual. Knowing the force of remaining prejudices, I am rather astonished that so many local pastors have taken the risk of being far ahead of their church members. But all churches share the challenge of inspiring local bodies to care intelligently about broader national and international moral problems.

‘Gospel Truth’

Such concerns include the poverty problem, both as a national and an international issue. Violence, criminality and drug addiction will have to be discussed not simply as problems of “law and order,” though that is important, but in regard to their more basic causes. Let me add that Mohandas Gandhi’s dictum that one should hate the crime but not the criminal is gospel truth, and that we shall never have a peaceful society until we reform our treatment of criminals along this line.

All this presupposes intensive studies, and the church should consider whether it should not reform the direction and scope of teaching in the divinity schools and theological seminaries. If I were writing not for church people but for social scientists, I would instead stress the need to give human valuations their proper role in research. When social scientists, in their efforts to remain simply “objective,” forget that people have a conscience to which they plead, they are in my opinion unrealistic and are not doing their duty as scientists.