Monday, January 17, 2011

Freedom is Not Enough

I'll get to the substance of my title in a moment.

It seems the phrase, "culture of poverty", and more importantly the idea behind it, is back in academic fashion and Stephen Steinberg, for one, will have none of it.  The idea behind it is that culture itself, specifically black culture, is a significant underlying cause of generational poverty.  Steinberg is upset in the first instance because as he sees it this blame-the-victim approach is essentially racist in nature.  But even more importantly, a focus on culture obscures what in his view are the actual causes of poverty, that is, the condition of poverty itself.

My immediate reaction to his piece is that Steinberg is chiefly an unapologetic liberal ideologue who happens also to be hyper-sensitive to even the possibility of evidence of racism.  Yawn.  Still, his piece held my attention and got me to thinking, not so much about his argument, but about the premises upon which he builds it.

I should begin, however, by pointing out a couple of problems with the argument itself.  First, by maintaining that the actual conditions of poverty are its principal cause, he's very close to framing what is an uninteresting tautology.  In essence he's saying that poverty causes poverty, that poor people are poor because they are poor.  But even if it's not a pure tautology and can afford at least some purchase on the problem, that is, that the conditions of poverty themselves result in such a measure of despair and dysfunctional behavior that escaping it becomes nearly impossible, there are simply too many counter-examples, untold thousands in fact, millions even, of people who in spite of their poverty have in fact escaped it.

Second, his argument is wholly materialistic.  The best way out of poverty, he insists, is simply by removing altogether or alleviating at least the conditions of poverty.  Supply the poor with more "stuff", food, money, health care, housing, etc., and, voilà, they'll no longer be poor.  The problem is that we're already familiar with that strategy and know it doesn't work.  Billions upon billions have been spent in the War on Poverty to little or no avail.  This is the chief reason why the "culture of poverty" has become, again, of interest to sociologist who study the subject.  (To be fair, Steinberg would argue that we, as a society, and our government as a reflection of it, have become increasingly stingy with our "stuff" and that is why poverty abides.  You decide.)

To finally get around to what I really wanted to say, that his approach is entirely materialistic is what captured my attention as it highlights an important difference between conservatism and contemporary liberalism.

Ironically, a routine charge of liberals against conservatives is that they are fundamentally materialistic.  (Individual liberals rank hypocrisy about this I'll ignore for the moment.  Here, at least, I'm more interested in what they say and less in what they actually do.)  But whether they realize it or not, materialism is not what actually bugs them.  What really makes them uncomfortable with conservatism is its emphasis on liberty.  Liberty, which we know if we've read our Tocqueville (and we should), is always pursued at the expense of equality, and if there is one thing contemporary liberalism is most about, it's the pursuit of equality.  For a liberal, a  society that is unequal, or increasingly unequal, is by definition unjust and therefore unacceptable.  His inconsistency, however, is that the chief way in which he measures inequality, in spite of his charge against conservatives, is materially. (Perhaps because it is the easiest way to measure it.)  Hence his emphasis on spreading "stuff" around, i.e., redistributing wealth.

This may shock you, but, to a point, they have a point.  To emphasize liberty, or freedom, at the expense of all other values is to always beg the question, free to do what?  Is it simply to compile as much "stuff" as possible?  Does, indeed, he who dies with the most "stuff" win?  Is there nothing more to life than simply "getting and spending"?

A libertarian, with whom a conservative makes common cause in privileging liberty, might say that it's nobody's business.  If a free man wants to make "getting and spending" his raison d'etre, as long as he does not interfere with another's right to do the same or otherwise, it is for him and him alone to decide.  It is at this point that libertarians and conservatives divide.

A conservative understands man to be both body and soul.  He is at pains to avoid the gnostic temptation to divide the material and the spiritual.  Modern man, under the spell of the Enlightenment, accepts this division, but unlike the gnostics, emphasizes the material over the spiritual, the body over the soul.  The spirit, the soul, is effectively relegated to an altogether private realm of no public significance.

If there is one thing one can say without fear of contradiction it is that contemporary liberals remain largely under the spell of the Enlightenment.  As a result they, unwittingly, divide body from soul and continue to emphasize the former over the latter.  I say "unwittingly" because they know nevertheless that something is wrong.  What they know is that freedom is not enough.

Our Founders knew this as well.  They knew, and frankly said as much quite often, that a foundation of morality was absolutely necessary for the proper functioning of a free society.  (They also knew that a moral foundation was most effectively established and transmitted by religion and, as a result, not only allowed for its free exercise, but encouraged it.)  Only a moral people can handle freedom wisely, safely.  Only a moral people will feel an obligation to those less fortunate and act upon it.  Moreover, only a moral people can extract themselves from poverty when afforded the opportunity to do so.

I'm sorry Mr. Steinberg, but whether "red, yellow, black, or white", there is such a thing as a "culture of poverty" and it is itself a cause of poverty.  Poverty is not described solely by the relative absence of  "stuff", nor will the provision of  that "stuff" solve it.  In a land of opportunity, persistent poverty is fundamentally a moral problem defined by the inability to recognize an opportunity as such when it presents itself or to summon the wherewithal to act upon it even if it is recognized.  And this country, as flawed as it may otherwise be, is still a land of opportunity.

OK, now I'll gird myself for charges of calling the poor immoral.