Saturday, January 2, 2010

Personal Responsibility for Thee But Not for Me

Men's rooms aren't the kind of place I associate with intellectual activity, so I was surprised today while using the facilities at the local Borders to find a debate about political economy written above one of the urinals. The only part of it I remember, aside from "SOCIALIST BULLSHIT!!" written after one contribution, was what followed:
WE DON'T MAKE PEOPLE POOR!!
WE CAN'T MAKE POOR PEOPLE HAPPY!
IT'S ABOUT PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY!
(Those last two words were underlined twice.)

The words "personal responsibility" always make me pay attention, since they usually mean other people's personal responsibility, not the speaker/writer's. But I'll begin at the beginning.

Who's the "we," I wonder? It could refer to rich people, Republicans, capitalists, whatever. I'm going to be generous, though, and let it mean "human beings." That is, the graffitist was saying that poor people aren't poor because of what other people do to them, it's because of what they do, or perhaps because of natural law: some must be at the top of society, some must be at the bottom; there's only a limited amount of wealth in the world, so if I have more, you have less, but I have more because of my natural virtue, my ability to accumulate -- because, as I once read in an article by the philosopher Antony Flew, wealth just naturally concentrates in fewer and fewer hands over time.

It may be that I misunderstand social construction theory, but I always thought that its point was that phenomena which people consider Just Natural can often be shown to be the result of social forces, decisions and actions of people rather than impersonal nature. It's easy to see the appeal of passing all the blame off on Mother Nature, but it doesn't really matter whether poverty is natural or not. There are any number of natural phenomena that human beings refuse to accept: death, which we try to postpone as long as possible; the courses of rivers and tides, which we try to dam or divert; nudity, which most cultures cover to a greater or lesser extent; and so on. In the end, apologists for the status quo generally contradict themselves: on one hand, the poor are responsible for their poverty because they are inferior or make bad choices, while the rich are either not responsible for their wealth because they are naturally superior, or superior because they made good choices, but those choices have nothing to do with the kind of society in which they live.

Even if it is true that wealth naturally concentrates in fewer hands over time, there is no reason why we should let it do so. We might not succeed in stopping that process altogether, any more than we can stop the tides, but we don't have to let it continue unimpeded either. (Speaking of the tides, a proverb that was popularized by Ronald Reagan, "A rising tide lifts all boats," is commonly used to argue that making the rich richer will also enrich the poor. (Notice the fictional graphs in that post.) If true, it would work both ways -- help the poor and you'll help the rich -- but it isn't true. Looking around the Web, I see that Obama and numerous Obama supporters have invoked the phrase, which does none of them any credit.

As it happens, certain economic and business policies can make people poor. We've seen it up close in the past few years, after all. If irresponsible lending policies lead to a large number of mortgage foreclosures, for example, many people will lose their homes, their standard of living may drop, and there will be more poor people around. If "free trade" policies encourage employers to replace well-paid jobs with poorly-paid, no-benefits jobs, then the number of poor people will increase. If they had medical insurance but lose it because of job loss, not only is their quality of life degraded, they may have to bankrupt themselves to settle medical debts. If a country with a substantial social safety net eliminates those social programs under pressure from international financial bodies like the International Monetary Fund, then poverty increases; that is, people who previously had not been poor become poor. Not everyone is impoverished, of course; the scum continue to float to the top, like those supposedly rising boats.

True, there are adults who can't seem to manage their economic lives -- they can't hold jobs for long, can't manage their money, couldn't study for long enough to get a job that would pay them more. There is, however, no reason why children should be punished for their parents' incapacity or mistakes. This is why we have public education, public health care, aid to dependent children, and other programs which are meant to help children primarily or in large part.

This reminds me of an anecdote Wendy Kaminer tells in the introduction to her book True Love Waits (Addison-Wesley, 1996). The editor of the National Review asked her to write a book review. She protested that she's "an old-fashioned liberal," and he reassured that it was okay, because she's "sensible."

"But you don't understand," I explained. "I believe in the welfare state. People think I'm conservative because there are messages about self-reliance in my work, and I value self-reliance, but I don't expect it of children." There was a long pause. He stopped reassuring me that I was sensible.
Of course, there still have to be jobs waiting for those children when they grow up and complete their schooling, and because of the choices that American leaders have made, such jobs can't be taken for granted nowadays, as in many periods of American history. But there's no reason to believe, thanks to past experience, that the supply of jobs can't be improved by human planning and effort.

"We can't make poor people happy"? I'll go along with that, but only because we can't make rich people happy either. We can make it easier for people to work on their happiness, and this too is not the work of Nature. Some people no doubt will be unhappy no matter what we do, but that doesn't mean we aren't responsible for making a society where people can seek it. Or -- harking back to the Declaration of Independence -- pursue it. Many conservatives try to evade this phrase by saying that the Declaration doesn't guarantee happiness, only our right to pursue it; but such a right is meaningless in a society which blocks off the pathways to happiness to all but the elite. I'll settle for a society in which no one goes hungry, or lacks medical care or access to education; happiness is up to them. (See, I believe in "self-reliance" too.)

Which brings me back to personal responsibility. Again, in discussions of wealth and poverty that term is almost always thrown at those below the uppermost ranks. We hear very little from the bankers and financiers, the politicians who deregulated our financial system with such disastrous consequences, about their responsibility for the outcome. On the contrary, they demanded rescue from the deluge, and on their terms. Their companies must not be permitted to fail, the taxpayers must bail them out, but the taxpayers must not be permitted any control as a result. The financiers must not only not lose their jobs, they must keep the bonuses they were promised, even in the face of their failure. They must be allowed to continue the practices that brought about the collapse, with the likely outcome that there will be more collapses in the future. But it's not their fault, they insist: it's the inherent (that is, natural) risks of our economic system. No one is responsible, except perhaps the worthless, overpaid American workers whose labor costs them so unconscionably much. Indeed, the whole purpose of incorporation is to limit liability as much as possible. To use the words "personal responsibility" in the context of capitalism is completely ... well, irresponsible.