I concluded my post, which praised Carlson for his “insights and plausible, thought-provoking claims” about the problems in rural America, by saying that he avoided the question of “personal responsibility.” I did not elaborate. I want to do so now.
Carlson said that “in many ways, rural America now looks a lot like Detroit.” This may be an exaggeration, but let us assume it to be true.
When conservatives discuss the plight of places like Detroit, we typically mention social pathology, as Carlson did in his monologue. Symptoms include kids leaving school early, girls having babies, fathers assuming little or no responsibility for these babies, youths choosing crime as a way of life, adults preferring welfare to work, and so forth.
Carlson blamed these problems on “big government” and conservatives agree that government policies have contributed to them. But each problem is founded on bad personal choices. Those who make these choices bear some responsibility for the adverse consequences they produce. Thus, conservatives typically insist that the concept of personal responsibility have a place in the discussion.
If we’re going to insist on personal responsibility in the context of Detroit, we should insist on it in the context of “rural America.” Arguably, we should be more insistent, since rural Americans were never subjected to systematic racial discrimination.
But the concept of personal responsibility didn’t make it into Carlson’s rant. Its absence became apparent to me when he complained that males in rural America are lagging behind their female counterparts. Carlson plausibly blamed the demoralization of the rural male population, and its inability to marry, on this phenomenon.
But why are white males lagging behind females? They attend the same schools. They come from the same families. In these families, I assume, parents expect their sons to achieve at least as much as their daughters.
Why aren’t they? Carlson notes that job opportunities in traditionally male jobs are shrinking in rural America, while jobs in traditionally female jobs are holding steady. But is that the entire story? Men are not barred from jobs in schools and hospitals. Nor are they barred from learning skills that will help them land jobs in other flourishing sectors.
Thus, to the extent that young males in rural and rust belt America aren’t doing as well as young females, I think it’s due in part to bad choices they make — e.g., using drugs, not taking school seriously, choosing leisure over work. J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, a book that highlighted the crisis in parts of rural and rust belt America that Carlson picks up, is populated with folks who made such choices. But it also includes some, and not just Vance himself (a special case), who made better choices and thrived as a result.
Carlson blames the lack of thriving in rural America on market capitalism and greedy elites — mercenaries, he calls them. I believe that, just as with Detroit, some of the blame must reside with the people making choices that are inconsistent with success in life.
Is this point worth making or should we take the bad decisions people make as a given — something we must work around? The answer is that, philosophical concerns to one side, as a matter of policymaking we can’t ignore, or work around, the concept of personal responsibility.
In the case of “Detroit,” we must decide how far to go in order to improve, in the short term, the material condition of the population. How much should we spend on welfare? How lenient should we be with criminals? Should there be monetary reparations? Should there be forced integration?
In the case of rural America, the policy questions prompted by Carlson are different. How much trade protection should certain American industries receive? To what extent should we limit legal immigration?
The answer in both cases depends in part on how much weight we place on the concept of personal responsibility. Those who take the concept seriously will be less inclined to transfer vast amounts of money, or to tolerate high risk associated with the early release of criminals, than those who don’t.
They will also be less inclined to think Americans should pay more for consumer goods as a result of trade barriers and restrictions on the number of people who can work in the U.S. They may ask how much more they should pay for cars because males in rural America are making irresponsible personal choices.
The best answer might well be “somewhat more.” Even for conservatives, the concept of personal responsibility isn’t absolute. We are willing to spend a considerable amount of money on welfare even though we know that if recipients made better choices, we would be able to spend considerably less.
Without some sense of empathy and national solidarity — some notion that we are all in this together — America is in big trouble. But we’re also in big trouble if we place the concept of personal responsibility off-limits in our policy discussions.