Saturday, February 18, 2012

Inequality and Social Values

An interesting debate has been playing out in the wake of Charles Murray's recent book which laments the decline of traditional values in white working class Americans over the past 30 years. Although Murray apparently has no real analysis of howor why this has happened, the answer is, naturally, reduced welfare entitlements.

I recommend reading this detailed and careful take-down by prominent conservative and former George W Bush speechwriter David Frum. Frum is especially critical of Murray's failure to take seriously the links between social changes and declining economic opportunities for the working class.

New York Times columnist David Brooks isn't happy with Murray's critics, who he accuses of "crude 1970s economic determinism". Brooks cites what he claims is overlooked sociological and psychological research showing how the environment in which people live and grow up create feedback loops which affect their behaviour.

I'm far from being a dogmatic materialist (although I believe there's usually a materialist story to be told). I think that social and cultural forces have real effects and are not just the epiphenomena of economic struggles. In fact, even most people who openly call themselves Marxists accept something similar these days. You can agree that sociological and psychological factors are important and still insist on seeing them in the context of change in the wider political economy.

So, you might think that Brooks isn't really disagreeing with anyone. But in one sentence he recognizes that "no matter how social disorganization got started, once it starts, it takes on a momentum of its own. People who grow up in disrupted communities are more likely to lead disrupted lives as adults, magnifying disorder from one generation to the next". A couple of paragraphs later he's saying: "I don’t care how many factory jobs have been lost, it still doesn’t make sense to drop out of high school." In other words, he would really like to put the blame on "poor decisions" and to join Murray in telling the working class to buck themselves up.

What's at work here is what I call the conservative's individual/group conflation. Conservatives like to point to examples of people pulling themselves up by their bootstraps as evidence that environment is not destiny. They accuse liberals (in the American sense) of belittling personal responsibility and they stress that with discipline and determination anyone can beat the odds. Yet most thinking liberals agree that personal responsibility is important and recognise that people are able to respond creatively to their circumstances, at an individual level. What they doubt is that a whole group which is systematically disdvantaged can all beat the odds -- otherwise they wouldn't be "odds". Disadvantaged groups will, on average, have poorer outcomes. And economic circumstances -- both absolute and relative -- are a pretty big part of what determines disadvantage.

As Frum notes, if you're honestly interested in a loss of social cohesion from 1960-2010, you also have to ask why various favoured indicators of "values" improved from 1910-1960, during a period of growing economic equality.

1 comment:

Erlkoenig said...

I think you fail to acknowledge just how stupid David Brooks is. I really try, in general, not to dismiss opinions I don't share as stupid, and rather tend to view them simply as a result of a different set of values. But you really can't take David Brooks seriously.