Thoughts on Dickens
Bill, that is, not Charles.
Both co-blogger Bryan (here) and many of his commenters (here and here) have done a nice job of handling Bill Dickens’ major criticisms of Bryan’s views on poverty and the poor. I have a few thoughts of my own to add.
First, some of the discussion by Dickens’s critics of the issue of responsibility for decisions reminded me of one of my favorite scenes from the movie Jerry Maguire. I can’t find it on YouTube, so I’ll have to settle for this re-enactment. The first 30 seconds is what’s relevant. The white guy on the left plays Cuba Gooding’s character, Rod Tidwell.
Second, I don’t think you can have a serious discussion of the poor without considering many of the incentives from government programs that blunt and stretch out the bad consequences of the bad decisions many of them make. I made this criticism in my review of Gertrude Himmelfarb’s book, The De-Moralization of Society. My review is titled “Values Judgments.” My main criticism was that she seemed to want the poor to behave better but wasn’t willing to advocate ending government programs that give them an incentive to behave badly. I wrote:
But Himmelfarb believes that abandoning failed welfare policies and releasing the resources of the free market wouldn’t be enough to achieve that aim either. Faith in free markets, writes Himmelfarb, “underestimates the moral and cultural dimensions of the problem.” Traditional values, she argues, must be legitimated, and this is difficult when the state and the dominant culture are legitimating their opposite.
Those who want to resist the dominant culture, asserts Himmelfarb, “may be obliged, however reluctantly, to invoke the power of the law and the state, if only to protect those private institutions and associations that are the best repositories of traditional values.” She does not say clearly which powers of the state she would invoke and for what, but her further discussion hints that she would have no trouble with anti-pornography laws, for example.
Himmelfarb is right that a cultural change is needed. But she is wrong to believe that “invoking the power of the state” is the way to get there. Though she seems to understand the strong connection between government welfare policies and the decline in culture, she doesn’t take the obvious next step: calling for a radical downsizing of government.
But only a large cut in government welfare programs, with abolition of most, can set the cultural forces in motion that would lead to declines in illegitimacy, crime, and other social pathologies. Trying to change the culture without changing its underlying incentives is, well, silly.
David Frum said this well in his 1994 book, Dead Right. In discussing the major strands of 1990s American conservatism, Frum wrote: “Conservatives who throw in the towel on issues like Social Security and Medicare and welfare in order to direct their full attention to ‘the culture’ are attempting to preserve bourgeois values in a world arranged in such a way as to render those virtues at best unnecessary and at worst active nuisances. The project is not one that is very likely to succeed.”
I would add that one of the government programs that does the opposite of bailing people out from bad decisions is the drug war. It penalizes people for (mainly) bad decisions and thus creates more poverty. I wonder where Bill Dickens stands on that.