A famous 1993 editorial in the Wall Street Journal warned that society was dismantling the “guardrails” that protected itself from potentially dangerous or self-destructive behavior.

The editorial warned that “the personal virtue known as self-restraint was devalued ... [elitist demonstrations] were merely one part of a much deeper shift in American culture — away from community and family rules of conduct and more toward more autonomy, more personal independence. As to limits, you set your own.”

At the time, the dismantlers were seen as the libertines of the political left. Sexual promiscuity, for example, was seen as perfectly legitimate, and taboos against it were seen as outmoded, conformist and repressed.

In the past two decades, this dismantling of the guardrails has continued, and we can see how much further this philosophy has taken us. Recent studies bemoan the decline of marriage and of procreation within marriage, but what the studies really show is that society’s “elites,” those who are middle or upper class, able to afford college educations and sired into families that have books on their shelves and two parents present enjoy relatively solid marriages and stable home lives.

The victims of a philosophy of promiscuity — itself promiscuously promoted in the media as being without consequences — have been those least able to protect themselves from its consequences.

But what the Wall Street Journal may not have imagined 19 years ago is that dismantling the guardrails is not just the agenda of one political faction anymore. A major presidential candidate has as part of his platform the legalization of drugs. Since government is seen as the great evil, and big government is seen as the greatest evil, even the most benign suggestions — having kids eat more healthy foods — are dismissed as the dictates of the Nanny State.

Now more guardrails may be coming down in the face of the nation’s crippling economic crisis. As The New York Times reported recently, “The Justice Department has reversed its long-held opposition to many forms of Internet gambling, removing a big legal obstacle for states that want to sanction online gambling to help fix their budget deficits.”

Around the country, states and cities have been legalizing gambling — a most cruel form of regressive taxation that preys on those least able to afford it. It is justified because it doesn’t count as “raising taxes”; it is a “personal choice” that one can participate in or not. Such elitist philosophical reasoning ignores completely the damage gambling can do, or the impact of one more state-approved temptation on the declining middle class and the growing ranks of the marginalized.

And if taxes on vices are legitimate “user fees” that help governments avoid other forms of taxation, then why not legalize (and tax) drugs, and prostitution? Indeed, for all intents and purposes, this has worked for pornography, which is now talked about seriously as a source of jobs and revenue rather than as the destroyer of souls and families.

We seem to lack any consensus on morality, much less virtue, these days. That the Church must raise its voice in opposition is clear: There is no other voice to be heard. Most importantly, the Church alone may be able to rouse the idealism of its young. It is they who are experiencing firsthand the dreadful dangers of a society stripped of its own instinct for self-restraint.

Editorial Board: Greg Erlandson, publisher; Msgr. Owen F. Campion, associate publisher; Beth McNamara, editorial director; John Norton, editor; Sarah Hayes, presentation editor.