Poverty and Responsibility

The following article originally appeared in the Rocky Mountain News on January 18:

SPEAKOUT: Loading the dice against responsibility

Columnist Campos’ claims about racism riddled with confusions

By Ari Armstrong

Friday, January 18, 2008

The ever-subtle Rocky Mountain News columnist Paul Campos suggests that those who praise “individual responsibility” believe that “poor black people are disproportionately lazy, stupid and immoral.” Campos adds that the same people also mock “the notion that the government (meaning you and me) can do anything but make things… even worse” for the chronically poor. (See Campos’ Jan. 9 column, “Dice loaded against blacks.”)

Campos’ claims are riddled with confusions. There is no contradiction between upholding individual responsibility and finding problems with the circumstances in which the chronically poor find themselves. Nobody disputes the historical fact that slavery and racist laws and prejudices severely harmed black Americans.

But is racism the main cause of today’s problems? Or, as I believe, have a variety of misguided government programs entrenched chronic poverty?

Myriad economic controls, along with payroll taxes of 15 percent, make it hard for the poor to get ahead. Welfare programs have discouraged work, encouraged broken families, and displaced voluntary charity. Government-run schools and other programs often underserve the poor. This is a real (and complicated) debate, and Campos cannot win it by unfairly insinuating that his opponents are racists.

Campos suggests that one must either blame individuals or blame their circumstances. Often that is a false alternative. In fact, as various black leaders have passionately argued, blacks trapped in poverty often exacerbate their own problems. (The point is true regardless of race.) Somebody who impregnates a teenage girl with no plans to raise the child cannot merely blame racists or the government for such behavior. Gangsters who rob and kill, and hook children on drugs are morally responsible for their acts.

The fact is that some people born into chronic poverty break the cycle, earn a decent education, and rise to the middle class or beyond. They are able to do it through strength of character. At the same time, others born to advantage waste their lives. As people should be blamed for their irresponsible behavior, so they should be praised for their achievements. Individual responsibility works both ways.

Campos claims that “the government” consists merely of “you and me,” so why be skeptical of its potential for social planning? This is an odd claim, for Campos implies through his broader comments that some people are politically powerless. In fact, politics is plagued by interest groups and political payoffs. Are welfare programs somehow immune from such problems?

Campos’ broader error is to ignore the particular nature of government. It makes a difference whether “you and I” rely on persuasion and voluntary interaction, or whether we bring to bear the force of government. I believe that it is precisely because political programs rely upon the forcible redistribution of wealth and the forcible restraint of voluntary interaction that such programs tend to miss their lofty aims.

That is not to say that government plays no legitimate role.

Government can be effective when it sticks to protecting people’s rights – that is, preventing crime and protecting people and their property from violence. Higher crime is a major reason why the chronically poor have trouble getting ahead, and government dramatically improves the lot of the poor by protecting people’s rights.

Campos fundamentally misrepresents the arguments of those who champion individual responsibility. Partly because of that, he also fails to make his own case. And for that I blame Paul Campos, not his background or circumstances. Individual responsibility applies to everyone.

Ari Armstrong edits FreeColorado.com and blogs at AriArmstrong.com. He is a resident of Westminster.