So the Romans 13 paper has been growing faster than the federal deficit, and now stands at 80 pages...I was planning to put up bits and arguments here on the blog as I wrote it, but it wrote itself too fast for that. I'll have to come back and put up some pieces later, I suppose. Meanwhile, I need to finish getting all of my book reviews from Wilson's class up--there's still three to go. Here's one on a book I actually really enjoyed--Dalrymple's Life at the Bottom.
Theodore Dalrymple’s account of life within the underclass of the British welfare state is a scathing and sobering account the evils that we in the West have wrought in the name of justice and mercy. It offers a damning indictment of the agendas that have sought to pursue these Biblical values, but with God conveniently left out, and shows just how far they have veered off track, and thus also indicts the Church for its failure to take firm charge of the God-given mandate for the poor. This book ought to convince any honest reader that something is deeply and fundamentally flawed about the way we have sought to minister to the lower strata of society in the modern West.
Unfortunately, though, when it comes to raising and addressing the deeper questions provoked by his analysis, Dalrymple falls silent. This is not necessarily a complaint against his book—every book must have a limited scope—but merely an observation that the book leaves most of the important work to still be done by the reader. And indeed, if this book is to have any relevance for a Christian political theory, we must be able to draw more from it than merely a specific description of the specific ills arising from a specific set of policies that are historically unique.
For example, Dalrymple’s discussion of the problem of the liberal welfare agenda consistently critiques their presupposition that suffering and bad behavior are the result of social causation rather than individual choice. This presupposition means that they never challenge erring individuals to grow up and change their ways, and so they condemn them to a perpetuation of their degradation. But, of course, inherent in this critique is a sharing of the presupposition, for Dalrymple’s entire point seems to be to call his society to account for helping to induce and prolong the terrible moral, educational, and economic deprivations of this underclass. He consistently aims to show that absurd social policies have helped wreck so many lives. Therefore, his real argument cannot be against the idea that deprivation and degradation are due to bad social factors, but rather to suggest that the liberal agenda has substituted particularly harmful social factors for relatively benign ones. Of course, Dalrymple also wants to maintain the case that social causation cannot erase individual responsibility, but his critique of the appeal to social causation would be clearer if he recognized explicitly that he shared some basic presuppositions of it.
There are a few things we should be careful not to draw from Dalrymple’s book, which many conservatives might be tempted to. First, this description of the unique conditions affecting the underclass in the Western welfare state is not a description of the worldview of underclasses generally. Dalrymple is clear about this, remarking about the difference between the “poor” in England and in Africa. We should not be tempted to think, based on our rather bizarre experience with the “poor” in America and Europe, that poor people in general are lazy and irresponsible—we have helped to make them so here, but this is far from generally true (though of course there are always examples), and is not universally true even here. Thus, it is a rather serious failure of perspective when conservatives see the call for justice to the poor in the Third World as simply another manifestation of the same phenomenon that drives the welfare state, and as likely to yield the same result. To raise concern over the rights of oppressed workers in Guatemala or over the exploitation of the poor in Mozambique is not necessarily an example of a “leftist” agenda, and it is a mark of how blinding the partisan agendas are that people often think that way. The difference, of course, is that very many workers really are oppressed in Guatemala, and the poor really are systematically exploited in Mozambique. In Britain, it may be true that prosperity and civil justice have so increased that the only people who are “trapped in poverty” are there because they don’t care and don’t try not to be. But we should not use that observation to deny that in very many places, people really are trapped in poverty and exploited, and it is our duty to campaign against this injustice.
Indeed, it is important to note that Dalrymple’s book does not really provide an argument against the essential liberal complaint that the poor are being exploited for the economic benefit of the middle class; rather, it simply points out that liberals are complicit in this. In my mind, this is a point he should make more of: why does the vast apparatus of welfare and social rehabilitation bureaucracy stay in place, and even grow, when its flaws are so clear? Because millions of people have an economic interest in keeping it there—millions of people are employed in that bureaucracy, whether it be the public school teachers, the welfare office workers, the homeless shelter personnel, or the army of administrators and lobbyists who keep it all going. To some extent, it seems that Britain’s problem has been a shift from industrial exploitation of the underclass to bureaucratic exploitation, for all the conscience-soothing that liberal platitudes might offer.
Dalrymple’s book should also not be taken as an argument for social independency. Liberals err by denying that the poor are independent agents; rather, they are a product of society and must remain dependent on society. Thus a culture of dependency is created, and no one is encouraged to take care of themselves. The solution to this, the capitalist would argue, is to get government out of it, to start requiring people to be independent agents, taking care of themselves, rather than being passive dependents on a welfare society. Participation in the benefits of society, the capitalist argues, should be based on individual merit; that is, each individual is free to try to provide for himself and better himself, and those who are best qualified will rise to the top. While this is a popular answer to the problem of dependency, it is far from a Christian answer. The Church should insist, not on dependency or independency, but on interdependency—that is, understanding that each of us, as members of society, is dependent on everyone else. No one should be asked or expected to govern themselves and provide for themselves all alone, but neither should anyone expect to be totally governed and provided for by another. It must always be a reciprocal relationship; everyone should be offered gifts, but only if they are willing to bring their own gifts to the table to share as well. And this observation points to the real moral of Dalrymple’s book: the failure of liberalism has not been to take too much responsibility for the needy, but to take too little responsibility. Taking responsibility for the suffering and sinful neighbor does not mean forking over some money to a faceless bureaucracy, which will then dole out benefits down an impersonal chain of command. In such a system, nobody is really responsible for the needy; if anything goes wrong, the buck can always be passed to someone else or to society in general, as Dalrymple clearly depicts. Taking true responsibility for the needy means being willing to get out there ourselves and do the dirty work of helping, providing, and discipling. And here the conservative hypocrisy is unmasked—we want to blame the liberals for their irresponsibility, and the needy for their irresponsibility, instead of starting (or even ending, for that matter) with taking true responsibility ourselves.