Toward the end of his life, Martin Luther King Jr. turned his attention from an exclusive focus on racial justice to unequal opportunity more generally. The United States was “a nation gorged on money,” he wrote, “while millions of its citizens are denied a good education, adequate health services, decent housing, meaningful employment, and even respect, and are then told to be responsible.” He specifically blamed federal policymakers for “subsidies of the rich and unemployment and underemployment of the poor.”
King’s indictment against the status quo of his time, and against the political and economic elite responsible for it, could be leveled almost word for word today. Indeed, some people — and not just liberals — are still making that indictment today.
In the wake of Tucker Carlson’s viral populist manifesto earlier this month, populist- and libertarian-leaning conservatives have been debating the same point King raised over 50 years ago. Does economic inequality depend on individuals’ good and bad choices, or on the social circumstances in which individuals make those decisions?
Obviously, the answer is “both.” But it’s important, especially for conservatives, to dig in to the question. Too many of King’s — and, now, Carlson’s — critics point to America’s free(-ish) market economy and declare that opportunity was and remains wide open to anyone willing to work for it.
To the extent it is true, King himself would have agreed. “I refuse to accept the idea,” he once said, “that man is mere flotsam and jetsam in the river of life, unable to influence the unfolding events which surround him.”
But to what extent is it true? Certainly, conservatives should affirm the moral agency of the individual. But we must also recognize the ways in which social conditions, history, and policies make the exercise of personal responsibility more or less difficult.
King was right that “a productive and happy life is not something you find, it is something you make.” But you make it with other people. Supportive relationships and institutions do a great deal to facilitate opportunity.
For two years the Social Capital Project of the Joint Economic Committee has studied the health of families, communities, and civil society, documenting changes in social capital over time and its uneven geographic distribution across the country. One striking finding from the project was that ten of the eleven states with the lowest social capital — as measured by an index we created — and 17 of the bottom 20 fall within a continuous bloc running across the southern part of the country.
It was beyond the scope of our report to fully explain the reasons for this concentration of disadvantage, but we noted that these geographic patterns suggest deep-seated problems. The facts eventually led us to a troubling, but revelatory, correlation.
One of the seven components of our Social Capital Index measures the prevalence of marriage and intact families in a given area (the darker the blue, the worse the score). We then overlaid our county-level map of this “family unity” index with a map depicting the share of those counties’ 1860 population that was enslaved (the more red dots, the higher the proportion of slaves). Here’s what we found:
The correlation is far from perfect. But as you can see, it is unmistakable, although the data are separated by 150 years.
The institution of slavery stole agency from African Americans, for generations. Families were regularly split up, with children torn from their parents and spouses from each other. Black women were often sexually assaulted by their “owners.” Husbands and fathers were prohibited from exercising the authority that men at the time were supposed to wield. They were neither breadwinners nor protectors but were instead subjected to violent humiliation and abuse at the hands of the privileged few who profited from the arrangement.
We must remember this history — to say nothing of the century of Jim Crow that followed the Civil War, with its terror and debt peonage — when we weigh questions of opportunity and responsibility among African Americans.
But policies less extreme than slavery can also weaken social capital and lead people to act in ways that impede their success. For it is not just African Americans in the Southeast who have low social capital: This was an explicit theme in Carlson’s monologue, and it was an implicit factor behind Donald Trump’s 2016 victory.
President Trump won all eleven of the low-social-capital states east of Texas. Around 15 to 25 percent of whites in these states identify their ancestry as “American.” This group is overwhelmingly composed of southern whites, and it ranks below nearly all ancestry groups in terms of median household income. Nationally, the correlation across states and counties between low social capital and the share of the population that identifies as “American” is stronger than it is for all but a few of the major ancestry groups.
As J. D. Vance describes in his memoir, Hillbilly Elegy, in this struggling region of the country, individuals’ poor habits and decisions limit their opportunity. But he also highlighted the impact of economic shifts and policies that have been either inadequate or ill-designed.
It is incumbent on conservatives — those of us who support the free enterprise system — to recognize that bad policy can inhibit access to free markets and better policy can enhance opportunity within them.
A populist conservatism — if it can find the right balance between promoting personal responsibility and addressing economic, social, and policy barriers to success — might be able to unite Americans across racial and cultural lines rather than dividing them. And it could strengthen conservatism overall at the same time.
Martin Luther King insisted that, in expanding opportunity for blacks, we would also be “rescuing a large stratum of the forgotten white poor.”
He was right then, and he may be even more right today.
As King put it, “we may have all come on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.”