Partisans of the Left and the Right don’t have much in common lately, except for a hunch that somebody is ripping them off. They feel ill used by a shady alliance of faceless financiers, complaisant politicians, and willful members of the news media, all of whom are alleged to have foisted a destructive agenda of unfettered trade and open borders upon the United States. The beneficiaries were the elites, or the “globalists,” or any of the other tags for nebulous forces beyond parochial control; supposedly, they hollowed out Main Street to enrich themselves. But when the economic destruction wrought by their agenda attained critical mass, social and political turmoil was the result: The 2008 financial crisis caused ordinary Americans to throw tea parties, occupy Wall Street, and, eventually, elect Donald Trump, the man who swore to buck the elites.
David L. Bahnsen’s book offers a corrective to this unfortunately popular narrative. Because he is a clear-eyed analyst, he does not lay the causality for American problems at the feet of an amorphous group of bogeymen. Instead, surveying the insecurities afoot around the world, he identifies “a cultural decline of thoughtful interconnected consideration, morality, integrity, and personal responsibility” as the source of our social woes. He contends that a decline in thought and behavior here at home has more to do with our economic and political problems than does any hidden coalition of powerful puppet masters.
Resuscitating the old but oft-forgotten insight that human beings are moral agents, Bahnsen argues that many Americans have disclaimed any responsibility for their own predicaments. Instead of seizing the reins of their own lives, they wait for someone else to fix things, fulminating at others all the while, indulging a “cultural addiction to blame.”
A wealth-management adviser (and a member of the National Review Institute board of trustees), Bahnsen initially set out to write a book about the financial crisis. Given his expertise, he easily could have done that. But this project took him beyond his customary balance sheets and cost-benefit analyses. His research led him to the conclusion that the “financial crisis was not the cause of, but a symptom of a broader cultural crisis of responsibility.”
The chapter on the financial crisis is his best: sharp, insightful, forthright. When the housing market turned south late in the last decade, many Americans defaulted on their mortgages. That sent down the value of mortgage-backed securities, products in which several banks and hedge funds had large positions. When the securities declined in value, firms did not have enough capital to cushion the losses on their balance sheets, and the crisis was under way. The conventional wisdom blamed three major actors: predatory lenders, for swindling people into buying mortgages they couldn’t afford; financial institutions, for failing to hedge their exposure to the housing market; and government, for not regulating the financial system tightly enough. But, Bahnsen writes, “the facts do not agree with the created narrative.”
What are the facts? The systematic failure of the housing market was brought about mostly by “predatory borrowing,” writes Bahnsen, not predatory lending. Seventy percent of defaulted loans had blatant misrepresentations on their mortgage applications; 75 percent of people who defaulted qualified for further loans; borrowers with high credit scores were much likelier than others to “strategically” default. Though there were indeed cases of predatory lending, thoughtless risk-taking, and lax regulation, what did more to precipitate the crisis was “a huge amount of totally intelligent and capable borrowers” taking out “reckless, irresponsible, and nontraditional loans.” In another day and age, reckless borrowing would have been rightly called a reckless moral mistake. Now, if someone lies about his financial status to take out an ill-advised mortgage, it’s anybody’s fault but his.
The standard narrative, with its convenient bogeymen — bad bankers! lazy regulators! — fails to describe what really happened, which is that borrowers, lenders, banks, and governmental actors alike failed to fulfill their responsibilities. Bahnsen does not deny that there is blame to be laid at the feet of the banks and official agencies, but insists that the borrowers are not snow-pure victims. Against the unexamined conventional wisdom on the financial crisis, Bahnsen argues that the abdication of responsibility that caused it was systemic. It follows that the policies designed to stave off a similar crisis in the future are aimed at the wrong targets; no political response can fix what is fundamentally a cultural problem. And that is the note Bahnsen strikes consistently throughout this courageous, wide-ranging book.
The newly ascendant antipathy toward free trade, the erosion of school choice, the increasingly fraught immigration debate, the sad decline of our higher-education system, and the inefficiency of government: Bahnsen sees all of these as symptoms of the responsibility crisis, and includes chapters on each of these subjects. It’s easy to blame impersonal forces for society’s problems. It’s easy to find silver bullets that would supposedly solve them. But, as Bahnsen writes, the world is never that simple.
That stubborn fact appears time and again. Take his diagnosis of the problems facing the American education system. “Schooling as a vehicle to teach reading, writing, arithmetic, logic, creativity, comprehension, and critical thinking is at the cornerstone of a proper philosophy of education,” writes Bahnsen. “Schooling as a substitute for family life, religious life, or engagement with community is an abuse of education’s . . . proper role.” Interest groups such as teachers’ unions are eager to secure as much funding as possible for public education. They cast the failure of urban public schools to properly educate their students as a simple problem with a simple solution: more money. But these actors are unwilling to countenance the possibility that they failed somewhere along the line — and that their preferred solution is anything but a panacea.
Our current policy regime limits the ability of lower-income Americans to choose the school to which they send their kids. (A recent article in American Affairs by Salim Furth makes the point that local zoning boards help keep this arrangement intact.) Bahnsen endorses a regime of tax credits for charter schools, calling this “a tested program that avoids government interference while opening educational opportunities to all families and students.”
The thrust of Bahnsen’s book remains that politics cannot cure what remains a cultural problem. “We cannot ignore policy prescriptions,” he allows. But “a failure to ignite re-moralization and recapture industriousness, honesty, family, and religion will guarantee the failure of any attempt to improve civic life.” In making this point, he adapts the conservative idea that healthy cultural mores are necessary to a healthy society.
This used to be taken as received conservative wisdom. Conservatives long rejected the idea that politics can cure what plagues the culture. Yet politicians promising easy solutions rule the day in American politics. The decadence of our political system, Bahnsen writes, favors a certain type of right-wing agitator who blames government for everything. But bad government is merely a consequence, “not a cause,” of the crisis of responsibility. American citizens have become content to let government solve their problems. As evidence, Bahnsen points to the rising number of people who claim disability benefits. The limited, republican government envisioned by the Framers “depended on moral and responsible citizens,” but as our citizenry becomes less moral and less responsible, the government has bloated beyond recognition. People ceded the responsibility they once had over themselves to an outside body.
This is happening within the government as well. Congress has relinquished its constitutional duties to make laws and declare war to the executive branch. The reason, of course, is that representatives find it more palatable to abandon their constitutional duties than to take potentially controversial positions. The crisis of responsibility infects the government.
Bahnsen does not spare partisans left or right in his diagnosis, but he is unmistakably — and avowedly — a conservative. His book reminds readers that there is indeed a bedrock morality upholding genuine conservatism. At their deepest and most penetrating, Bahnsen’s insights are rooted in the wisdom that no policy, no entitlement, no social program can cure a cultural ill. Despite its businesslike prose, this book sets forth a deeply moral argument. Something is wrong in our society, and the only way to fix it is for all of us to own up to our contributory role. It may be that the first step to solving the crisis of responsibility is to read Crisis of Responsibility.