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The Poverty of Reason

Glenn C. Loury

I REGRET VERY MUCH that I was unable to attend the forum on the "Responsibility of Intellectuals." As a professional economist who has been writing about inequality in this society for many years, I find the question, "What must we do?" arising with ever increasing urgency. As a black American -- a product of Chicago's South Side now comfortably ensconced in the middle class -- this question is especially compelling. But as someone who regularly attends conferences about ghetto poverty, I have become convinced that we will not find real solutions in social science meetings.

Why this skepticism about the contributions of social science? Because modern social science and policy analysis speak a language of cause and effect: "if we design this program then they will respond in that way." But the core problems of ghetto poverty must be addressed in a language of values: "we should do this; decent people must strive to live that way." In the fluent "conference-ese" of the "policy wonk" there is no place for such language.

We now know that problems of ghetto poverty are deeply connected with the dysfunctional patterns of behavior adopted by young people in these communities. The questions raised by those patterns -- questions of responsibility and remedy -- need to be answered by our nation, as a political and a moral community. To find these answers, we must have the will to examine ourselves: how we live, what we believe and value. And this self-examination must involve all of us, not only the poor.

Silenced Voices and Exhortations

A number of critics have recently emphasized relationships between the behavioral problems of the poor and the cultural crisis of American middle and upper classes. That crisis is revealed by rising divorce rates, the spread of venereal disease, troubles in our schools, increases in teen suicide, alcohol and drug abuse, problems of international competitiveness, and the flight from responsibility into therapies that stress our victimhood. At issue is our capacity as a community to discuss values and ways of living, and to convey normative judgments arising out of that discussion. I am dubious, for example, that it will ever again be possible for the federal government to put its considerable power behind the sensible normative proposition that parents ought to wait until after marriage to have children. Consider the collective guffaw of influential opinion about the debate on "family values" in the last presidential campaign. More than mere partisanship, this was a contemptuous rejection of the very idea of public discourse about how we should organize our family lives.

This is an interesting situation. We have waged national campaigns to change aspects of behavior, with some positive results. Smoking is the obvious example, successfully targetted over the last generation, through both public and private efforts. Normatively powerful public rhetoric has also increased our national consciousness of environmental issues. One only need read Vice President Gore's book, Earth in the Balance, to see that. But public exhortation about sexuality, marriage, and childbearing is far more contentious because it cuts against the ideological grain of the great "liberation" movements that swept through our society in past decades.

How is all of this connected with the ghetto poor? Stated directly and without benefit of euphemism, current conditions in poor black communities reveal as much about the disintegration of urban black society as they do about the indifference or hostility or racism of white society. Institutional barriers to black participation in American life still exist, of course, but they have come down considerably and everybody knows that. Everybody also knows that other profoundly debilitating barriers have emerged within the urban black milieu (and not only there) in these last decades.

Neither social scientists nor politicians know what to say or do about this disintegration. Analysts cannot account for it; public spokespersons dare not speak of it. Put simply, clear expressions of fear, disgust, dismay, contempt -- sentiments which we all know are widespread -- have no place in our political discourse.

Yet the absence from public discourse of such moral language has consequences. Remarkably, candidates wage campaigns in cities riven by the social disintegration of their ghetto communities without ever invoking the language of values. Incredibly, we mount campaigns of reconstruction -- in South Central Los Angeles, for example -- in the absence of an effective normative discourse aimed at judging the behaviors of people whose lack of discipline has been so costly for their community.

Instead, we hear the familiar platitudes -- "racism," "inadequate funding," "no jobs, no hope." If it needs to be said, I do not hold that racism has vanished, that funding is entirely adequate, or that high unemployment produces hope. My complaint is that we lapse all too easily into a public rhetoric that avoids engaging fully the moral problems that confront us. As social life in inner cities collapses, we have ritualistic public conversations about caring and compassion, but not about hard-edged judgments of decency and personal morality.

Mechanistic Determinism and Morality

One source of the problem is that materialist assumptions drive our public language about ghetto poverty. The presumption is that economic factors ultimately underlie behavioral problems, even when the behaviors involve sexuality, marriage, childbearing, and parenting -- matters which reflect people's basic understandings about the meaning of their lives. The view is that these behavioral problems can be cured from without; if government gets the incentives right, everything will be fine. The philosophy is mechanistic determinism: the mysteries of human motivation are susceptible to calculated intervention, if only the government is sufficiently committed to try. This conception of social disorder in the inner city lends itself easily to the favored lines of argument about social policy. Those who favor expanded government can argue that we either pay now for social "investment" programs, or pay later for welfare and prisons. Those who want the federal budget to shrink can cite the worsening conditions of the ghetto in the face of growing social spending over the last generation as evidence that the Great Society failed. Those who seek a middle way can split the difference by insisting that new benefits be accompanied by a heightened sense of responsibility, while arguing that government services must help the poor to accept their responsibilities.

These sterile and superficial debates fail to engage questions of personal morality. They fail to talk about character and values. They do not invoke any moral leadership in the public sphere. The view seems to be that in a pluralistic society such discussions from public officials are inappropriate. Nor do we teach in our schools -- the schools serving this very population -- the comparative virtues of alternative ways of living. We give only muted public voice to the judgment that it is wrong to be sexually promiscuous, to be indolent and undisciplined, to be disrespectful of legitimate authority, or to be unreliable, untruthful, or unfaithful. We no longer teach values, but offer "clarification" of the values children are supposed somehow to have internalized without instruction.

The advocacy of a particular conception of virtuous living has nearly vanished from American public discourse. And it is unthinkable that it would be evoked in the context of a discussion of race. Marriage as an institution is virtually dead in inner city communities. The vast majority of poor black children are now raised by a mother alone. But who will say that black men and women should get together and stay together for the sake of their children? Who will say that young people of any race should abstain from sexual intimacy until they consecrate their relationships by marriage? These are no longer fitting matters for public discourse. Government, it appears, is not to take up moral issues directly, but to confine itself to dealing with the consequences of moral lapses.

Now, I am not one for tilting at windmills. The emergence of morally authoritative public leadership seems highly unlikely. So we must look to non-governmental agencies of moral and cultural development to shoulder some of the burden of promoting positive behavioral change. In every community there are such agencies that seek to shape the ways in which individuals conceive of their duties to themselves, their obligations to each other, and their responsibilities before God. The family and the church are primary among them.

These are the natural sources of legitimate moral teaching -- indeed, the only sources. Until these institutions are restored, the behavioral problems of the ghetto will remain. But such restoration cannot be the object of programmatic intervention by public agencies. Government, of course, has a place. I am not suggesting that we do away with Head Start, or withdraw funds from public schools. Rather, I am arguing that the normative dimension of the problem of behavioral dysfunction is not amenable to government remedy. Communities need to address normative issues for themselves. And that will require the intellectual, religious, and political leadership of the community to embrace their responsibilities. The task transcends the policy debate between Democrats and Republicans about the size of the next federal budget. The challenge for leaders of the black community is to build the communal institutions that can instill in our youngsters a moral framework sufficient to allow them to take advantage of the great opportunities this society offers.

Indeed, it mocks the idea of freedom for free black men and women to leave the determination of our communal norms to the vicissitudes of government policy. Free people must accept responsibility for the behavior of their children. And when that behavior has gone badly astray, they must work to correct it. This is not simply a pragmatic observation intended to promote greater economic advancement among blacks. This concern goes straight to the heart of the issues of dignity, equal standing, and respect for blacks in our society.

The Price of Our Souls

The ideological presuppositions of current black American political advocacy simply ignore the truth of what I am saying here. Some leaders, in civil rights organizations and the halls of Congress, remain wedded to a conception of the black condition and a method of appealing to the rest of the polity, which undermines the dignity of our people. They seek, it would seem, to make blacks into the conscience of America, even at the price of our souls. When they announce the small number of blacks who attain a certain achievement, they think it is an indictment of society, not us. The rhetoric is: "It costs more to keep a young black man in jail for a year than it does to send him to Yale for a year" -- as if the difference between jail and Yale is a matter of the size of some bureaucrat's budget, rather than the behavior of the young man himself. If we want to see this young man at Yale rather than in jail, we should not talk to President Clinton. We should talk to his parents, his neighbors, his pastor, his teachers -- the people who are, or at least who should be, intimately involved in his life, the people who are connected to him by bonds of blood. But racial advocacy in our time directs itself to the political world outside the community, rather than the moral world within. Instead of working to construct the social infrastructure that would make Yale a possibility for the young man, advocates cite his condition as a basis for a claim against the rest of society. It is as if we counted the bodies, piled them up on the doorsteps of politicians, and then presented the bill. It is a wholesale abdication of moral responsibility of astounding proportion.

Consider the blood that was shed, the sacrifices made, the determination, organizational skill, commitment, and dedication shown by blacks of previous generations. With much less opportunity and against far greater odds, they struggled to ensure that our generation might live as free and prosperous American citizens. To honor this great legacy of struggle against the "enemy without," we ought to have the courage to take up the current struggle against the "enemy within."

We blacks ought not to allow ourselves to become ever-ready "doomsayers," always alert to exploit our own suffering by offering it up to sympathetic whites as justification for incremental monetary transfers. Such a posture suggests a fundamental lack of confidence in our ability to make it in this country, as millions of immigrants have done in the past and continue to do now. And even if the advocacy succeeded, it is impossible that genuine equality of social status could lie at the end of that road.

It is, however, possible to understand how things have come to this pass. Blacks have ended up in this ideological trap in part because of the tenuous commitment in the United States to providing for the poor of any race. Black leaders and intellectuals think they must emphasize black victimization because it provides the only secure basis for pressing claims on behalf of their most disadvantaged fellows. So they formulate their claims in racial terms, and rely upon the historical mistreatment of blacks to give moral force to those claims. The desperate plight of the poorest blacks makes it unthinkable that whites could ever be "let off the hook."

Yet an affirmation within the black community that we are personally responsible for our fate -- which I argue is necessary for a full realization of our freedom -- cuts against this tendency to stress specifically racial grievances. For this reason, addressing inner city social problems with universal rather than race-specific policies -- as sociologist William Julius Wilson has advocated -- has benefits beyond the political considerations that are typically cited in support of broad-based, inclusive, non-racial social policy. We Americans, as a national community, have the responsibility to help poor people in the ghetto and elsewhere, whatever their color. When we fail to fulfill that national responsibility, we foster racialized political discourse and make it nearly impossible for black intellectuals and political leaders to pursue the kind of thinking I advocate here.

Political Risk and Moral Necessity

Whatever the outcome of the policy debate, however, we blacks must let go of the past and take responsibility for our future. An apparently unacceptable political risk is really an absolute moral necessity. The circumstance is a genuine dilemma. The temptation can be overwhelming to adopt the posture of the aggrieved claimant, the historical victim, the person whose violation accounts for his every disability, and who, in his helplessness, is nothing more than the creation of his oppressor. Yet such a posture inhibits the attainment of genuine freedom and true equality, for it defeats an emphasis on personal responsibility and morality within the group. It is difficult to overemphasize the self-defeating dynamic that can be at work here. The demands of political advocacy encourage an ideology which attributes personal inadequacies among blacks to "the system." The emphasis on self-improvement is denounced as irrelevant, self-serving, dishonest. Individual black men and women simply cannot fail on their own; they must be seen as never having had a chance. They cannot be living immorally -- in a way inconsistent with communal values which black leaders stand ready to affirm. They must instead be seen as victims.

But crime, violence, drug use, promiscuous sexuality, unwed childbearing, parental neglect, abuse and irresponsibility, and the general failure to seize opportunities are all maladies affecting inner city black communities; we blacks, as a community, must accept responsibility for them. We have to acknowledge the personal moral failings that lead to these problems. We must not simply blame these conditions on society or racism or capitalism.

If we do not grasp the horns of this dilemma, if we continue to respond to the plight of the ghetto poor in terms of our historical victimization, then we shall pay a terrible price. No one but us can provide the moral and spiritual leadership needed to reverse current social disintegration. Too many black leaders and spokespersons, confronting their people's need and their own impotency, believe they must continue to portray us as the "conscience of the nation." But the price extracted for playing this role, in incompletely fulfilled lives and unrealized personal potential, amounts to a loss of our own souls.

Consummate victims, we lay ourselves at the feet of our fellow citizens, exhibiting our own lack of achievement as evidence of their moral failings. We hope to wring from the American conscience what we must assume, by the very logic of our claim, lies beyond our own capabilities. And all the while, we bemoan the limits of that conscience. This is not a path to the freedom for which our ancestors struggled, but to a dismaying, permanent, second-class status in this society.

Originally published in the February/March 1994 issue of Boston Review



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