A Cultural Case for Capitalism: Part 2 of 12 — The Great Society
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A Cultural Case for Capitalism: Part 2 of 12 — The Great Society

[Part 1 of 12 here]

In the 1950s and ‘60s, blacks were winning the civil rights they should have had all along, but in the midst of this positive trend, increasingly aggressive minimum wage regulations and extensive welfare programs were beginning to displace a comparatively free market of labor and private charity. The communities flooded with this state-sponsored mode of redistributive justice now face far higher levels injustice in the form of unpunished crimes and community breakdown than before the redistributive justice arrived.

So, for instance, there was a gradual trend in the direction of family breakdown among the middle and upper classes during the sexual revolution of the 1960s, but in the lower income black communities helped along by Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs, there was nothing gradual about it. The divorce and out-of-wedlock birth rates shot through the roof, leading to a dramatic rise in homes without the father present. A host of social pathologies quickly followed.

I grew up being fed the line that the pattern of inner city black children being raised without fathers in the home was an inherited result of families being split up and humiliated during slavery. Slavery was undoubtedly horrific, but using the trauma of slavery and the institutional racism that persisted afterwards as a primary explanation clashes with much of the available statistical data, and it sells short the resiliency and strength of black families in the decades after the Civil War.

The state of the black family before the welfare programs arrived in the 1960s was very different from what it was afterwards. Robert Woodson, a black public intellectual and president of the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, argues that whereas in the 1930s, the rate of intact black families was high and not too different from that of whites, “when government intervened with the poverty programs [in the 1960s], a major paradigm shift occurred and contributed to the decimation of the family.”

Many others, black and white, have made similar arguments. In The Bottom Rung, University of Washington sociologist Stewart Tolney explores a host of factors that may have undermined the black family. In language carefully modulated for contemporary academic sensibilities, he concludes, “One does not need to embrace the conservatives’ nearly exclusive emphasis on welfare policy as the cause of non-marital childbearing to acknowledge that government policies are an active ingredient in the stew of macro-level forces that influence individual family-related behavior.”

Yale University sociologist Elijah Anderson put the matter more succinctly in a 1989 article: “It has become increasingly socially acceptable for a young woman to have children out of wedlock—significantly, with the help of a regular welfare check.”

The phenomenon isn’t restricted to any one racial group, and the psychological dynamics affect fathers as well as mothers. In Wealth and Poverty, George Gilder describes the moment when the man realizes that “his role as provider, the definitive male activity from the primal days of the hunt through the industrial revolution and on into modern life, has been largely seized from him.” Having realized that he has been “cuckolded by the compassionate state,” his understandable reaction is a “combination of resignation and rage, escapism and violence, short horizons and promiscuous sexuality.”

The tragedy reaches beyond the United States. In Life at the Bottom, Theodore Dalrymple details his interactions with the poor during his years serving as a psychiatrist in the prisons and hospitals of Birmingham and East London. He distinguishes the upwardly mobile working poor (often immigrants) from a largely non-working “underclass” who have been infantilized by the nanny state, so much so that the families often lack mature adults to hold them together.

The pattern is telling: whether in the United States, England, Ireland or continental Europe, when humanitarian assistance moves from an emergency solution to a permanent arrangement, and from face-to-face private charity to top-down, state-sponsored “redistributive justice,” the results have been communities marked by rising injustice and a lack of human flourishing.

It doesn’t follow from this that we should have no public social safety net, but if cultural decay does accelerate where governments quash economic freedom and aggressively redistribute wealth—and the historical record is pretty clear on this—it would seem to follow that the free economy is not the reason for the cultural decay that ails us. To find the root causes, we need to look elsewhere.

[Part 3 is here.]