The Corner

The Great Poverty Debate: Understanding Unconditional Responsibility

One of the most deeply-felt of impulses of our fallen human nature is to find a way to excuse or justify our own failings — or the failings and faults of people we know and like. When others sin, it’s because they’re evil or malicious. But when we sin, it’s because we were provoked. Or we’re angry. Or we’re desperate. Spouses always have reasons for their affairs. Thugs always have reasons for their punch. 

It’s the same in political discourse. We constantly engage in “heads I win, tales you lose” reasoning. If the other side fails, then we gleefully call it out. If our side fails, then we’ll find a reason why the other side is truly to blame. And when it comes to voting constituencies that “our side” needs to succeed, the temptation to whitewash can be overwhelming. “Our people” are great and noble. “Their people” are uninformed and greedy.

I’m reminded of this temptation by the continuing, overwhelming response to Kevin Williamson’s magazine piece (subscription required) — and, to a lesser extent, my supporting post –decrying the passivity and self-destructiveness of many working-class white communities — a key part of the GOP base. Rather than engaging in actual argument (Who, after all, is going to deny the breakdown of families and the rise in drug and alcohol-related deaths? Who is going to defend the morality of these actions?), many critics are either calling Kevin an elitist (Kevin? Really?) or engaging in blame-shifting. It’s the establishment’s fault. It’s immigrants’ fault. It’s free trade.

Let me stipulate — because I whole-heartedly agree — that the government and our so-called cultural “elite” have failed our nation badly. Not only have they failed, but they’ve done so in a way that makes it substantially harder for ordinary citizens to get ahead. Have you spent much time in your average public school? Have you tried to start a business lately? Have you seen the rising cost of college? 

But here’s the key point — we have mutual, unconditional responsibilities. At no point is anyone of any race justified — by stress, adversity, or others’ failings — to destroy themselves or their family. At the same time, at no point are those who are better off justified in turning their backs on the poor. Regardless of whether government succeeds or fails, people still have responsibilities — myself included. I have a God-given obligation to help those in need. Those in need have a God-given responsibility to do their best to help themselves.

The truly insidious thing about the welfare state isn’t that it has robbed people of their agency — it hasn’t — but that its excesses and naïveté have created a glide path of dependency. It’s made vice easier and virtue more challenging. But to state that truth doesn’t mean that vice isn’t still vice. It’s wrong to try to milk the disability system. It’s wrong to drink to excess. It’s wrong to give up on finding a job. It’s wrong to fracture families.

If we can’t speak these truths, we’re lost. If we can’t call on our fellow citizens to live with greater determination and purpose, we’re lost. If we can’t live with determination and purpose ourselves, we’re lost. But the spirit of the age — and the temptation of every age — is to play the victim and to use that victim status to justify all manner of wrongful acts.  

I would suggest that if your first impulse on reading a piece that criticizes our own movement is not to evaluate the arguments themselves but instead to sputter, “But what about the Left? What about the government? What about black poverty?” then you are part of the problem. I’ve spilled countless barrels of ink (too many, possibly) talking about cultural and political issues on the other side of our nation’s political, religious, and racial divides, but if I won’t speak about the problems that plague our own movement and our own allies, that doesn’t make me brave or bold — it just makes me a partisan hack.

We have citizens — black, white, and Hispanic – rejecting their responsibilities and their families by the tens of millions – often choosing pills, the bottle, or the needle over wives and husbands, sons and daughters. We have citizens wallowing in self-pity and anger despite having taken little initiative to improve their lives. A key aspect of helping those who are lost in substance abuse and self-pity is to call them to a better way.

But it’s not enough just to speak — that’s cheap and easy — we also have to act. Embody the values you proclaim, preserve and protect your family, give sacrificially, mentor those who lack role models, and keep doing those things even when the government fails and evil seems to triumph. There is no adversity — short of death, of course — that can relieve us from responsibility.


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