Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Great Class Divide

Charles Murray, co-author of the controversial Bell Curve, examines the growing division between lower class and upper class whites in his latest book, Coming Apart. To set the stage for the incredible transformation that has occurred in the last five decades, he paints a charming picture of a largely homogeneous white culture on the eve of Kennedy's assassination. His focus on whites ensures that adequate attention is paid to our most significant cultural problem: class division. As he demonstrates in one of the books later chapters, lower class blacks, whites and Hispanics are faring roughly the same.

The first part of the book examines the new upper class. Contrary to fifty years ago, when a CEO for a company would probably live in, or at least near, the small town in which his business was based, more and more of the rich are living in neighborhoods which are comprised of other rich people. Not only are their neighbors wealthy, a significant number of them attended the same elite universities, which their children then attend. Think David Brook's Bobos in Paradise, which Murray recommends. The result is that the nation's elites, those who set government policy and exert considerable influence over the media, are now completely isolated from their fellow citizens in the lower class.

Murray turns to this lower class in the second part of his book. He argues that four qualities have made the American experiment successful: industriousness, honesty, marriage, and religiosity. So long as its citizens practice what Murray calls "the founding virtues", the project can expect to continue; once these virtues are abandoned, we have no such assurances.

Like the first son in the Gospel parable, the upper class fails to offer support for the founding virtues, but nonetheless practices them. The picture is different in the lower class: industriousness is being replaced by television and sleep; social capital is diminishing, and crime is still a concern. Marriage has been replaced by cohabitation--which data suggests is "about the same as... single parenthood" as far as the children are concerned.

The results are troubling for religiosity, too: "Despite the common belief that the working class is the most religious group... the drift from religiosity was far greater" in the lower than upper class. Surveys that rely on mere profession of belief are apt to mislead; someone who attends church services once a year is de facto secular, and is highly unlikely to participate civically as do religious members who are regular church goers.

Somewhat curiously, Murray applauds the revolution in the status of women we have achieved since the 60's. I would have liked to see him examine the role feminism has played in the trends he documents, the most disturbing of which is the growing prevalence of single mothers. The welfare state, a concomitant of the feminist revolution, has replaced fathers with the State. It is disheartening that lower class men are refusing to help raise their children, but it's not exactly surprising. As an ardent critic of our welfare system, Murray no doubt appreciates the point. But the link with feminism is sadly unexplored.

Although far from being pollyannaish, Murray is more optimistic than I am about the prospect for a "civic great awakening." One of his arguments is that watching the implosion of the European model will offer a "powerful incentive to avoid going down the same road." This presupposes that the welfare state is not already so large as to ensure that we tread the same path as the Europeans--a dubious assertion.

I suspect that as America proceeds towards bankruptcy, the upper class is far more likely to cut off welfare payments than risk the diminishment of their own status--dependent as it is upon our system of crony capitalism. When Congress bailed out the banks, even though it would have been cheaper to pay off everyone's mortgage, they adumbrated the coming crisis rather nicely.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

On contraception and its provision

I finally pulled myself away from Charles Murray's excellent new book, Coming Apart--which I plan on reviewing--to comment on the recent hullabaloo concerning contraception. The recent health care bill, colloquially known as Obama care, will require that employers cover the cost of contraception for employees. The American bishops of the Roman Catholic Church objected, noting that the law would require that Catholics violate their consciences.

The Catholic position on contraception is succinctly summarized in the Catechism:

Periodic continence, that is, the methods of birth regulation based on self-observation and the use of infertile periods, is in conformity with the objective criteria of morality. These methods respect the bodies of the spouses, encourage tenderness between them, and favor the education of an authentic freedom. In contrast, "every action which, whether in anticipation of the conjugal act, or in its accomplishment, or in the development of its natural consequences, proposes, whether as an end or as a means, to render procreation impossible" is intrinsically evil:

Thus the innate language that expresses the total reciprocal self-giving of husband and wife is overlaid, through contraception, by an objectively contradictory language, namely, that of not giving oneself totally to the other. This leads not only to a positive refusal to be open to life but also to a falsification of the inner truth of conjugal love, which is called upon to give itself in personal totality. . . . The difference, both anthropological and moral, between contraception and recourse to the rhythm of the cycle . . . involves in the final analysis two irreconcilable concepts of the human person and of human sexuality.

This position is poorly understood, even in Catholic circles, partially because it is a complicated matter and the Church's stance, though consistent, can be hard to grasp, and partially because the American bishops have done a poor job of explaining the teaching. None of this alters the fact that the Church holds that the use of contraception is immoral.

In this benighted age, in which logic and reason are rare, the argument has been bandied about that since most Catholics do not adhere to the teachings of the Church when it comes to contraception, the Church's position is unsound. This is lamentably true, but it's irrelevant to the conversation. Individual Catholics may flaunt Church teaching--though, of course, the Church may also punish her members for disobedience--but so too may Catholic institutions adopt policies in accordance with Church teaching. To refuse these institutions this right is to blatantly violate the religious freedoms enshrined in the Constitution. Whether or not the High Court sees things this way, is, as always, another matter.

There's another issue at stake, here, however, which may be more important. If the Obama administration allows a conscience exemption for Catholic institutions, it's very likely that this will be the end of the matter. The left will howl at this capitulation, but the bishops will pronounce themselves pleased. And yet, individual Catholics will still be required to violate their consciences, because private insurers cover contraception and because Medicaid does. I'm glad to see the bishops protesting the infringement of the freedom of the Church. I would like to see them do likewise when it comes to the freedoms of individual Catholics.

In regards to private insurers, the problem can be solved simply--though not, I am sad to say, easily. The reason companies provide healthcare is because of the government. During WWII, wage controls prevented companies from competing for valuable workers by paying them more money. So they sweetened the deal by offering healthcare. If healthcare was no longer provided by the employer, Catholic employees could use Catholic health insurers that did not provide contraception services. Simple, but in the present environment, practically impossible. For the time being, we must continue to violate our consciences.

The situation with Medicaid is equally hopeless, but it does allow for the illustration of a point. Our progressive age views health care as a "right". In philosophical terms, this is known as a positive right, as against the negative rights enshrined in the Constitution. (I'll not quote her here, but Ilana Mercer's latest column handles this in considerable detail, with her customary clarity and erudition.) Positive rights require something of someone else; someone must work so that someone else may receive "free health care". This is always the case with positive rights: they require that some other right be violated.

Negative rights, on the other hand, do not require such sacrifice; freedom of speech does not require that anyone give up a right. As long as we continue to speak of positive rights, there will always be a chance that religious individuals must violate their consciences in order to provide whatever the secular State demands. With or without Obamacare, Catholics will have to continue to work to provide someone else with contraception.

There are two ways out of this mess. The first is to prohibit the Government from paying for contraception with taxpayer money. This is preposterous; only a small number of Catholics care about this issue, so getting this provision through Congress is well nigh impossible. The second is to reclaim from the State that which should belong to the Church. There is no reason why Catholics should provide for the poor and the sick through the secular State. There is no reason that the Church should have allowed the State to appropriate this to itself in the first place.

As Paul A. Rahe recently argued:

In the 1930s, the majority of the bishops, priests, and nuns sold their souls to the devil, and they did so with the best of intentions. In their concern for the suffering of those out of work and destitute, they wholeheartedly embraced the New Deal. They gloried in the fact that Franklin Delano Roosevelt made Frances Perkins – a devout Anglo-Catholic laywoman who belonged to the Episcopalian Church but retreated on occasion to a Catholic convent – Secretary of Labor and the first member of her sex to be awarded a cabinet post. And they welcomed Social Security – which was her handiwork. They did not stop to ponder whether public provision in this regard would subvert the moral principle that children are responsible for the well-being of their parents. They did not stop to consider whether this measure would reduce the incentives for procreation and nourish the temptation to think of sexual intercourse as an indoor sport. They did not stop to think.

In a sense then, Obama's overreach has been useful. It has clarified a deep incongruity in Church policy. It also allows a chance to stake out a position more in tune with the full spectrum of Church teaching. For while the sick ought to be cured if possible, fertility is not a disease. The Church understands this, which is why her bishops should understand why it is unwise to allow the State to continue to play doctor.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Degraded by wealth

The blogger Roissy has a very good piece in which he claims that prosperity is to blame for many of our current problems. He quotes a commentator, who goes by the name of Jason Malloy:

[S]ome people are oriented towards higher investment reproduction and this entails higher cognitive ability, long term goals about education and career, later first intercourse, fewer and more stable relationships, reproduction within secure pairbond, and mate selection biased towards reliability and parenting qualities. Other people are oriented towards lower investment reproduction and this entails lower cognitive ability, few long term goals, early first intercourse, more sex partners and less stable relationships, reproduction outside of pairbond, and mate selection biased towards “sexy” qualities (looks, charm, creativity, athleticism).

This is essentially the premise of the vastly underrated film Idiocracy. It's not really necessary to get into the whole nature versus nurture debate. Even if the genes Susie Joe Underclass passes on to his many children aren't entirely responsible for the many grand-children they sire her out of wedlock, it's not as if there's an environmental factor to counter-balance the lower investment reproduction mommy and daddies taught them. Whether it's nature or nurture, or a mix of both, the kids are not alright.

The reasons for these trends, in other words, are less important than the trend itself, namely, that there is an ever growing underclass that makes poor reproductive--and other--decisions. As Charles Murray has noted, this has portends ill for the republic. The elites are barely cognizant of this underclass, and thus possess no awareness of how to alleviate the many problems faced by this growing segment of the population.

Prosperity has ensured that the underclass can continue to make poor choices to a far greater extent than previous generations could. This is not to imply that the drop in the infant mortality rate, for instance, is to be regretted, only that prosperity has birthed attendant ills. It does no one any good to ignore these ills simply because they came about because of a positive development. Nor is it classist or racist or anything of the kind to comment on a readily apparent phenomenon. Ignoring the underclass, or calling them by a nicer sounding name, doesn't alter their predicament in the slightest.

Back to Roissy. His key sentence is probably this one:

Individualism and freedom of thought are the enemies of the very values and morality which gave birth to them and elevated them to primacy among advanced nations.

It's very tempting for a libertarian to try to disown this conclusion. But I think he's essentially correct. And yet, since individualism and freedom are the sin qua non of libertarianism, is my political philosophy not discredited?

I would say this is true only to an extent. Libertarianism is insufficient to instill virtue, but it does allow the furthest and freest expression thereof, as well as, it must be said, vice. If the people are good, they will use their freedom well. Individualism does not preclude working for the common good. If the people are not good, they will use their freedom for ill. This is why it's so important to focus on instilling virtue, rather than trying to devise a system of government without reforming the people.

Moreover, if libertarianism is discredited, so too are conservatism and liberalism. The former is only valuable if the institutions and traditions of the culture are worthy of conserving. Yet the entire problem stems from the fact that there are no institutions which have served to instill virtue in the underclass. If haphazard reproduction is an institution, it needs to be reformed, not conserved. Liberalism, too fails, because while its social safety net may have buttressed the position of the poor--and even this is debatable--they have done nothing to reform the habits of those same people.

The regrettable conclusion seems to be that most of us are unworthy of freedom; perhaps that is why we seek to give it away so easily. One may salvage things some with the well known quote from John Adams: "Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other."

Which begs two important questions. First, what kind of government is best suited for a nation such as ours, burdened with a vast underclass that makes poor use of freedom? And second, what can be done to instill virtue in said underclass?