The Duty of Citizens
Much of the division we encounter in America is based on citizens demanding their rights. Free speech rights. Property rights. The right to bear arms. Abortion rights. Voting rights. These are all civil rights.
There are also redistributive rights. Entitlements for social security benefits, healthcare, and welfare payments. There are also demands for equal pay (between genders and races), equal housing, and reparations. These are social justice rights.
There is an inherent conflict between civil rights and social justice rights. Civil rights require a limitation of the power of government while social justice rights require an increase in the power of government. While there is conflict between people holding different views of their rights, none of these rights are absolute. Many rights infringe on the rights of other people, and human nature means that implementing systems of rights will be flawed and imperfect. What can be done to find an appropriate balance between these conflicting rights?
It seems to me that something is missing from our discussion of rights, both civil and social justice. What are the duties and responsibilities of citizens? Having a right to do something also requires that the citizen exercise such right responsibly. Ignoring the rights of others or using force to exercise one’s rights can only lead to a disruption of society and an erosion of our civilization. Carried to its extreme, such actions would lead to a rupture of the social contract holding society together. Given the current state of divisive political rancor in the US, it would appear that we are approaching just such a breakdown of our democratic society right now.
So, what are the duties of citizenship? Obviously, citizens are obligated to pay taxes to support the government. But government only forms a part of society, and in the Founders’ idealized republic a relatively small part of society. It is we the people that are our American nation. The government is merely our tool to implement our will. Adam Smith described in his classic book, The Wealth of Nations, how a person can act in his or her own interest and still serve the common good. The butcher, baker and brewer provide goods and services needed by society, as do the many other workers and producers provide the vast array of products and services that comprise our modern era.
Unlike a government that can force people to accept goods and services as defined by that government, workers and producers in a free market society are limited to goods and services desired by the people. If the baker makes bread that does not taste very good or uses substandard ingredients, people will take their business elsewhere. And if the baker charges too much for his product in his search for excess profit, the people will seek a different baker or a more modestly priced product. In this way, the free market is uniquely designed to supply consumers with the products they need and want. And if a Steve Jobs or someone like him comes along with an entirely new product that nobody had even thought they wanted (such as a smartphone), then the market will adapt to this new and improved product or service and older products and services will become obsolete (like landline telephones). This is called progress. And the widespread availability of goods and services is called prosperity.
But progress and prosperity depend on citizens being productive and being productive means that the citizen produces more goods and services (or the capital or labor needed to produce the goods and services) than he or she consumes. This surplus (whether in the form of profits, savings, wealth or other form of surplus) becomes available to society as investment, expansion, donation to charitable works and even taxes.
Not all citizens are equally productive. And some citizens are not productive at all. Children are not productive because they must first learn how to be productive. This is why education is a public good because it benefits society by creating productive citizens. Retired citizens are not very productive and the pension and social security benefits they receive usually exceed what they produce. But those benefits are the reward for a lifetime of productivity. And there are other people that, for reasons of mental or physical incapacity, are unable to be productive. These people deserve the kindness and mercy a just society can provide them.
And then there are adult citizens that should be productive but aren’t. They are poor compared to the rest of society but enjoy many luxuries such as flat-panel TVs and smartphones that were unheard of in our parents’ time. They suffer from all sorts of social pathologies: addiction, criminal behavior and violence. They produce babies without fathers to guarantee another generation of unproductive citizens.
Politicians use these unproductive citizens as a source of division blaming productive members of society for their poverty. Demagogues and race baiters try to convert them into a base for their political ambitions by telling them that their condition is not their fault. It’s the fault of the system, one-percenters, white supremacy, racial discrimination or some other excuse.
Politicians promise these unproductive citizens benefits or entitlements that can only be provided by extracting wealth from the productive members of society. But the benefits do not raise these unproductive citizens up out of poverty, because their poverty is the poverty of spirit, and the entitlements destroy their human capital and perpetuate their hopelessness.
All the entitlements and benefits ladled out to unproductive citizens by government are, supposedly, well intentioned (they also have the additional benefits of keeping politicians in office and community organizers relevant). But well intentioned efforts that do not solve a problem, but actually make the problem worse, are worthless. They have no value no matter the intention.
Most of these efforts to achieve the desired social justice outcomes focus on meeting the material needs of the poor and marginalized communities. Extended unemployment benefits mean that people do not have to seek out low paying jobs that match their skill levels. Welfare benefits to single mothers make it affordable, and maybe even desirable, to not have the father in the house. And more babies without fathers means more financial assistance. In other words, many of the welfare programs encourage unproductive people to remain unproductive. Minorities (especially blacks and Hispanics) tend to have a higher percentage of unproductive people that are net takers from society. Many people (especially progressives) point to racial discrimination and systemic barriers as the reason for the poverty of these unproductive citizens. But many (actually most) of these unproductive citizens are white. Charles Murray pointed out in his book, Coming Apart, that poor whites suffered from the same afflictions that poor blacks and Hispanics suffered from: addiction, alcoholism, poor education, single parent households, etc. And Dr. Theodore Dalrymple describes in his book, Life at the Bottom, the maladies afflicting the underclass in England that parallels the problems in the US, but with a mostly white population.
The analyses of Murray and Dalrymple would indicate that, even if racial discrimination and systemic barriers were important factors in the poverty of these unproductive citizens, cultural factors were also very important. This fact was supported by J.D. Vance’s book, Hillbilly Elegy that chronicled his growing up in a hillbilly culture that trended to alcoholism, abuse, poverty and trauma. Thomas Sowell has even applied this cultural trait to black poverty in his book, Black Rednecks and White Liberals, asserting that the ghetto culture that defines black identity is closely linked to that of poor southern whites that emigrated from the Celtic fringe of North Briton who he described as suffering from aversion to work, proneness to violence, neglect of education, drunkenness, and fondness of charismatic religion (which may explain their fondness for ex-President Trump (see, The Paradox of Trump’s Charisma by Jonah Goldberg).
The purveyors of cultural relativism would condemn these people to eternal poverty, material and spiritual. J. D. Vance was able to break out of his hillbilly culture, but it wasn’t easy. He joined the military out of high school and used his veteran benefits to get into, and graduate from, college. He was able to stumble onto the institutions that helped pull him out of his culture of despair. We cannot abandon the unproductive citizens in our society, but neither can we accept and support their cultural heritage that locks them into a cycle of poverty.
Assistance programs must be redesigned to change the cultural values of these unproductive citizens. Programs should encourage and value education, deferred gratification and middle class values. Two-parent families must be supported. Such programs might put race-baiting politicians and progressive elitists out of business, but they might actually achieve the social justice goals they profess to endorse. These solutions will not show results immediately (as the politicians promise their entitlements will). It will take time for such solutions to have their full effect, but as people learn habits that help them take care of themselves, hopelessness will be transformed into hope.
As the non-productive citizens become productive and are capable of taking care of themselves and their families as well as fulfilling their duties and responsibilities to society, the need for social justice programs will decline, the conflict between civil rights and social justice rights will be reduced, and the spiraling costs of the ever-growing welfare state will be contained, and the divisive nature of American politics will be tamed, allowing for consensus and progress.