What the Success Sequence Means
By Bryan Caplan
…This is a strange state of affairs. Everyone – even the original researchers – insists that the success sequence sheds little or no light on who to blame for poverty. And since I’m writing a book called Poverty: Who To Blame, I beg to differ.
Consider this hypothetical. Suppose the success sequence discovered that people could only reliably avoid poverty by finishing a Ph.D. in engineering, working 80 hours a week, and practicing lifelong celibacy. What would be the right reaction? Something along the lines of, “Then we shouldn’t blame people for their own poverty, because self-help is just too damn hard.”
The underlying moral principle: You shouldn’t blame people for problems they have no reasonable way to avoid. You shouldn’t blame them if avoiding the problem is literally impossible; nor should you blame them if they can only avoid the problem by enduring years of abject misery.
The flip side, though, is that you should blame people for problems they do have a reasonable way to avoid. And the steps of the success sequence are eminently reasonable. This is especially clear in the U.S. American high schools have low standards, so almost any student who puts in a little effort will graduate. Outside of severe recessions, American labor markets offer ample opportunities for full-time work. And since cheap, effective contraception is available, people can easily avoid having children before they are ready to support them.
These realizations are probably the main reason why talking about the success sequence so agitates the critics. The success sequence isn’t merely a powerful recipe for avoiding poverty. It is a recipe easy enough for almost any adult to understand and follow.
But can’t we still blame society for failing to foster the bourgeois values necessary to actually adhere to the success sequence? Despite the popularity of this rhetorical question, my answer is an unequivocal no. In ordinary moral reasoning, virtually no one buys such attempts to shift blame for individual misdeeds to “society.”
Suppose, for example, that your spouse cheats on you. When caught, he objects, “I come from a broken home, so I didn’t have a good role model for fidelity, so you shouldn’t blame me.” Not very morally convincing, is it?
Similarly, suppose you hire a worker, and he steals from you. When you catch him, he protests, “Don’t blame me. Blame racism.” How do you react? Poorly, I bet.
Or imagine that you brother drinks his way into homelessness. When you tell him he has to reform if he wants your help, he denounces your “bloodless moralism.” Are you still obliged to help him? Really?
Finally, imagine you’re a juror on a war crimes trial. A soldier accused of murdering a dozen children says, “It was war, I’m a product of my violent circumstances.” Could you in good conscience exonerate him?
So what? We should place much greater confidence in our concrete moral judgments than in grand moral theories. This is moral reasoning 101. And virtually all of our concrete moral judgments say that we should blame individuals – not “society” – for their own bad behavior. When wrong-doers point to broad social forces that influenced their behavior, the right response is, “Social forces influence us all, but that’s no excuse. You can and should have done the right thing despite your upbringing, racism, love of drink, or violent circumstances.”
To be clear, I’m not saying that we should pretend that individuals are morally responsible for their own actions to give better incentives. What I’m saying, rather, is that individuals really are morally responsible for their actions. Better incentives are just icing on the cake.
This is not my eccentric opinion. As long as we stick to concrete cases, virtually everyone agrees with me. Each of my little moral vignettes is a forceful counter-example to the grand moral theory that invokes “broad social forces” to excuse wrong-doing. And retaining a grand moral theory in the face of multitudinous counter-examples is practically the definition of bad philosophy.
Does empirical research on the success sequence really show that the poor are entirely to blame for their own poverty? Of course not! In rich countries, following the success sequence is normally easy for able-bodied adults, but not for children or the severely handicapped. In poor countries, even able-bodied adults often find that the success sequence falls short (though this would be far less true under open borders). Haitians who follow the success sequence usually remain quite poor because economic conditions in Haiti are grim. Though even there, we can properly blame Haitians who stray from the success sequence for making a bad situation worse.
Research on the success sequence clearly makes people nervous. Few modern thinkers, left or right, want to declare: “Despite numerous bad economic policies, responsible behavior is virtually a sufficient condition for avoiding poverty in the First World. And we have every right to blame individuals for the predictable consequences of their own irresponsible behavior.” Yet if you combine the rather obvious empirics of the success sequence with common-sense morality, this is exactly what you will end up believing.