Maybe it’s because I’m of Anglo-Scottish descent, but Saint Patrick’s Day has never been especially significant for me. I do know, however, that it has long been the occasion for much celebration for those whose forebears hailed from Hibernia. Occasionally, however, St Patrick’s Day becomes a vehicle for odder purposes. One of the most recent was an article which appeared in the New York Times that was very critical of one particular Irish-American, Congressman Paul Ryan. More specifically, its author Timothy Egan took a dim view of Ryan’s willingness to suggest that a culture of dependency has developed in the United States and that it may have something to do with the welfare state.
Such attitudes and critiques, the piece argued, reflected a type of ancestral amnesia on Ryan’s part. Egan reminds his readers that some English politicians warned against intervening in the Irish famine of 1845-1852 on the grounds that the market would sort out the shortages and that, in any case, many of the Irish were lazy and needed to learn how to fend for themselves.
The article was careful not to imply equivalency between what its author calls “the de facto genocide that resulted from British policy, and conservative criticism of modern American poverty programs.” But Egan did imply that Ryan somehow believes that some Americans “are bred poor and lazy.” To that end, the article pointed to Ryan’s recent claim that “we have this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work.” This was, the article claimed, “the language of racial coding.”
That Paul Ryan is a critic of some of the social impacts of the welfare state is hardly news. But he’s hardly alone. He stands, for instance, with another Irish-American, the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan (who few would describe as a Tory), not to mention contemporary black scholars such as Thomas Sowell and Anthony Bradley.
Do they — and Paul Ryan — believe that the welfare state has contributed to the social disfunctionality that marks particular segments of American society, as evidenced by factors such as out-of-wedlock childbirth and intergenerational cycles of poverty? Yes, they do. Does pointing to such evidence and suggesting that some type of a cause and effect may be at work make these individuals closet racists? No, it doesn’t. Do any of these aforementioned people believe that individuals of particular ethnic backgrounds are somehow incapable of escaping poverty? Of course, they don’t.
Part of the problem, it seems, is that many modern liberals aren’t willing to acknowledge the unintended consequences that manifest themselves with many government welfare programs and interventions. Nor do some of them seem able to imagine that there is really any other way to help those in need than through the welfare state and other forms of direct government intervention. People such as Ryan and Bradley are not in fact calling for the complete elimination of any form of government assistance whatsoever. Instead, their focus has been upon (1) the need for civil associations, churches, and other religious groups to engage in this often-thankless work more closely, and (2) for economically better-off individuals and communities to be willing to support such activities, including with their resources of time and money.
As the New York Post’s Bill McGurn once wrote in a 2011 Wall Street Journal article, the argument of most conservatives with most liberals is not about whether Americans should help those in need. That is a given. The issue concerns the how. Conservatives ask, McGurn wrote, how do we “balance our care for fellow citizens without wrecking the economy, ruining families, or giving birth to more soulless bureaucracies?”
Is this such an unreasonable question? I, for one, am very glad that Paul Ryan and others are willing to pose it, whatever their ancestry.
— Samuel Gregg is research director at the Acton Institute.