the fungibility of blame
in any person capable of internalizing morality, the distribution of means begins to seem all-important.
the settler families spreading the doctrine of John Calvin must have already been slotting into a well-worn American tradition, when they chose an explanation of wealth and poverty which places blame firmly onto the latter. by the time of ‘social darwinism’, this pattern had become a fundamental defense mechanism in the collective psyche. the facts— even the moral consequences— of this type of thinking are immaterial. such that when the spectre of social darwinism is raised, it is as a little scarlet letter with which to brand a particular type of moralizing. we pay no regard to the theories themselves.
as above, so below; there has always existed a second form of moralization available in the free market of the american mind. and when wealth is instead blamed for poverty, it is as an equal and opposite psychological defense. by believing strongly enough in the redistribution of means, or full communism, or any other policy matter which will never pass, the moralizer insulates himself from the moral consequences of the society he takes part in. you might imagine a little voice in the back of his mind, saying, ‘it’s their fault, not mine. after all, I voted for the farthest-left candidate in every Democratic primary, and phone-banked in the general!’
that every citizen bears these sorts of armor is a simple consequence of the invention of secular democracy. if a citizen has any control at all over the manner in which their society is run, then naturally they must bear some measure of the blame for any of its moral failures. and it is only natural to view poverty as a moral failure, whether a failure to provide for the needy or a failure of the needy to provide for society.
there is only one way to be free from this drive to moralize: to recognize that there is no fundamental justice in the origin of any modern civilization.a message is legible only on a blank slate.
Robin Hanson, discussing Bryan Caplan, writes, “What if most everyone who makes poor choices is actually well aware of the usual good advice when they make their poor choices? And what if they like having the option to later pretend that they were unaware, to gain sympathy and support for their resulting predicaments?”
Caplan himself is speaking on the “success sequence", which goes like this: “1. Finish high school. 2. Get a full-time job once you finish school. 3. Get married before you have children…”
Caplan is taking a rather narrow view of success. in fact, success explicitly means the avoidance of real, crippling poverty, the likes of which even most poor americans haven’t experienced.this, I think, is a clever gambit. the name of the ‘success sequence’ calls to mind a consistent slide into the middle class, with spectral comforts like job security which nobody gets with only a high-school education (and not everyone gets even with college). in short, Caplan singles out real poverty and glosses neatly over the paycheck-to-paycheck precariat, a condition we should not be terming “success” without some qualification.
He seems to be working his way towards a cohesive argument for why poor people are to blame for their own poverty— I’m sure I’ll have a more charitable manner of disagreement when his book on the subject is written, but piecing together the fragmentary talks and outlines given so far would be neither time-efficient nor charitable. if, in the end, the book argues that it’s easy to avoid poverty if we’re limiting the discussion to a narrow form of poverty, it may be much ado about nothing— an inflammatory title belying a flame-retardant thesis.
now, society doesn’t get off the hook that easily, either. agency means something different for everybody. agency is about what choices you make with the options before you. and if the rich are given a long list of easy choices, we cannot commend them for avoiding a fatal blunder. the inverse is far more telling. why do people drop out of high school, or to abuse their wife? what motivates them to do so?
Hanson’s quote shows that we’re taking the low road; we now examine the psychology of teen angst. we start off with three clear assumptions: that the correct choice is to go through the success system, that Zack lashing out at this system means he saw the success system laid out before him and turned away, and that the lack of enthusiasm for this road on Zack’s part pins the consequences firmly on him.
far from chained to the specifics of Minding the Gap, these become a generalized approach to Caplan and Hanson’s mental model of poverty. once generalized, it looks like this:
1: any rational individual can go through with the success system trivially
2: therefore, an individual who fails to go through with the success system has failed to be rational.
3: a failure to rationally decide how to live is fully the fault of the individual, and they bear all consequences for doing so.
and in order for this to function, it needs to be assumed that irrationality is the fault of the irrational, and that the success system will continue to be easy enough that it requires only to make good decisions.
presumably, Hanson watched and absorbed Minding the Gap, but it feels wrong to imply that Zack looked at one hand and saw a ‘boring’ lower-middle life, and at the other which held an abyssal poverty and self-destruction, and chose the latter out of a sense of rebellion.
i have to wonder if he has looked in the eyes of men riddled with the common traumas of poverty, looked and seen the contradictions that tear them apart. yes, it is fully possible to engage in self-destruction with full foreknowledge. but one must never have seen it if they seek to fashion it as a fulcrum of blame. generation after generation, the poor are kept poor by the communicable psychoses of abuse and addiction. rational decision-making is no more the answer to this than stable blood sugar is the cure to diabetes. if you really wish for the poor to take the reins of their own lives, to navigate with reason by the guiding stars of your success system, then a requisite first step is to enable every person to live by reason. this is not some paternalistic keynesianism, it is the mechanism required if the libertarian dirigible is ever supposed to get off the ground.
this is a more optimistic argument than it may seem. it is not that morality does not apply to civilization at all, it is that we did not arrive here by a moral vehicle; it is that the only application for morality is what we choose from this point forward. investment in the moral quality of the status quo is a desperate, losing fight.
for the record, while i’ve dipped into such a level of poverty at times, it is not my permanent condition. i also followed this ‘success sequence’, and such that it only prevented the most intolerable extreme of poverty, the reference to the term ‘success’ leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
i try to only take words from Marxism when they’re especially good. this one is.
i can safely avoid the matter of blame over teen pregnancy, just because it is the low hanging fruit. pregnancy out of wedlock is largely accidental, and this means the choice of what to do with an accidental pregnancy is here being treated as a matter of cold economics! that some young and troubled women might feel a moral, or even religious, duty to their pregnancy is thereby dismissed. i could imagine either caplan or hanson would handwave this by saying that the young woman should have abstained from sex until marriage, if she was not willing to risk an accidental pregnancy that could destroy her future and unwilling to abort or turn the child over to an inhumane foster care system. lol.
that consistent full-time employment is not necessarily a given for a nominally-unskilled high-school graduate at 18 is also insufficiently explored by both Hanson and Caplan. i should know, i’ve tried!