Individual responsibility

Striking a right balance between expecting personal agency and extending deserved empathy.

Conservatives are strong on emphasizing the importance of “individual responsibility.” And rightly so, so to speak. But realism also requires recognition of the many constraints, often quite powerful ones, that tempt and lead people into not fulfilling what others might view as their clear-cut obligations as citizens.

I think about tensions like these a lot, but particularly so in recent months because of two new books, both keenly important, both grounded in a conservative spirit. The more celebrated is J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. The second is Nicholas Eberstadt’s Men Without Work: America’s Invisible Crisis. But most immediate in further spurring my interest was a generous remark of a think tank colleague in Washington to a column I had written, not about adults and their grown-up responsibilities, but about kids and their own obligation to show up in school every day, whether they want to or not.

I had responded in that column to what a coauthor of a national report on absenteeism (Preventing Missed Opportunity: Taking Collective Action to Confront Chronic Absence) had said in an interview. Things such as: “Chronic absenteeism follows poverty wherever it is found in significant concentration.” And how “multiple factors” make it harder to attend school regularly,” including “substandard housing, exposure to industrial and automotive pollutants – both which drive higher rates of asthma – limited health and dental care, food insecurity, evictions and greater exposure to violence.” All inarguable, I agreed, to one degree or another.

Still, nothing in the 36-page report had suggested that young people possess personal agency of any kind, which led me to ask if viewing hyper-absenteeism as exclusively a problem of students controlled by external forces is a healthy way of conceiving matters. Shouldn’t recognition of free will and its inescapable importance fit someplace? Yes, absolutely, I self-evidently concluded.

To which my DC friend graciously likened my contention to the way in which Vance “struggles” in Hillbilly Elegy to somehow combine “empathy for what poor communities are going through and his ‘conservative’ belief in personal agency.”

Which takes us to the way Eberstadt is critical, often in distinctly moral terms, of the massive and increasing numbers of men – nearly one out of every eight in their prime working years of 25 to 54 – who have dropped out of the workforce completely. He is certainly alert to economic forces that have made it acutely hard for many of them to find family-supporting work. But to his credit, that is not to say he sees such obstacles as mountainously halting as do most voices on the left. Here are three of his most pointed observations.

“This brief demographic sketch of the modern American un-worker suggests that powerful social influences shape whether a prime-age male will have a job or be in the workforce at all and that these social influences have changed significantly over the last fifty years. Such a formulation, however, runs perilously close to the social determinist fallacy – the assumption that humans are helpless objects at the mercy of overarching social forces without agency in affecting their life outcomes.”

“To a distressing degree, these men appear to have relinquished what we think of ordinarily as adult responsibilities, not only as breadwinners but as parents, family members, community members, and citizens. . . .”

“It is impossible to imagine any earlier generation of younger American men reconciling themselves in such tremendous numbers to a daily routine of idleness, financed substantially by some government programs that certified them as incapable of working. And it is likewise impossible to imagine that any earlier generation of working and taxpaying Americans would find acceptable our nation’s current arrangements for supporting men who are neither working or looking for work.”

The men pictured in Eberstadt’s portraits do not conjure memories of the Marlboro Man, high on horseback, cigarettes ablazing. But just because smokes are discredited doesn’t mean that the kind of full-bodied manliness he describes as frequently AWOL isn’t a tall loss.

How might one fairly frame a conservative conception of individual responsibility, especially in contrast to earlier times in our nation’s history when references to it were regularly preceded by the prefix “rugged?”

Going back a bit but not as far, I was accused at American Experiment’s very first event ever, a day-long conference on poverty in 1990, of espousing “middle-class values.” The hardhearted horror. I didn’t respond that day but did so in a column a couple of weeks later when I said that all I meant by middleclass values went something like this:

Go to high school, work reasonably hard, and graduate.

If you can work, work.

If you make babies, try to be married.

If you’re married, try to stay that way unless circumstances are abusive.

Don’t drink too much.

Don’t do drugs.

Don’t commit crime.

As a sign of how far we had fallen, two Members of Congress, separately, saw fit to put the column and its not terribly demanding or intrusive rules into the Congressional Record. And I know of a former U.S. Senator who still carries the seven points in his wallet. Jumping forward a quarter century-plus, might have matters adequately improved when it comes to observing these most basic elements of individual responsibility?

Afraid not, pardner.