Thursday, September 22, 2016

Superstitious Moral Claptrap

Nothing frustrates me more than to hear the words "they need to help themselves".  To the extent that this is a way of arguing that government interventions don't work, that needs to be said instead, and with specificity as to what programs don't work.  An ideological, categorical opposition to all government intervention is paranoid and delusional.

The fact is that people are doing the best they can, or know how to do.  And this includes the people engaging in behaviors that are causing problems: the crime, the neglectfulness, etc.  In my work with poor, undereducated parents, I see that they all love their kids, and want the best for them.  They just sometimes didn't know how.  They lack a certain skill-set to do things like providing a cognitively enriched environment, speaking with certain affect and tones that better reinforce familial bonds, or following through with structure and placing appropriate and consistent  demands.

But there are clear reasons for their skill deficits.  It isn't some immoral choice they are making.  Often it is because that was the way they were raised, or that certain traumas increase stress - anything from relationship issues to working demeaning low-wage jobs.  The causality is incredibly complex, and specific to every family.

There are a vast array of policy interventions - from micro-level options such as parent training, which to be effective would be intensive and costly, to macro-level decisions about neighborhood design, wage, tax, property policy.  In the middle might be specific community-level interventions such as recreation centers, transporations, parent and job training, etc.  Effective macro-interventions would have enormous long-term benefits, as things like functional families or safer streets make micro-interventions unnecessary.  However, in the present there are people in real need, and specific deficits are driving very real issues.

I imagine the answer then, is simply both, adjusted according to necessity.  What we don't need is claptrap about "personal responsibility", which is neither deterministic, parsimonious with fact, or causally coherent.  You might as well say that hurricanes need to be more responsible and stay offshore.


  1. A Qwik Hello! Really glad you are back and writing more frequently now as well. I'm the reader who first discovered you when your article about California appeared in RCP (Real Clear Politics)?? years ago. Article was fascinating and I was agreeing until one of your concluding sentences caught me by surprise. Ever since I've been hooked on how you make such a good case for views that, yes, I often disagree with. Keep up the good work.