Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Prejudices of the Self Made Man

Not long ago, I spent a week or two going the rounds with an adamantly pro-choice philosophy grad student in the comments of another blog. One of the points he kept making was essentially, "If you're really in favor of reducing abortions, you should be in favor of contraception and sex ed programs, because "abstinence based" programs do not, statistically, have good success." (As in, those who have attended public schools with "abstinence only" sex ed programs do not have startlingly lower pregnancy and STD rates than those who haven't.)

That may or may not be true. I haven't familiarized myself with the research. But it's hard for me to take, because since planning (and succeeding) on not having sex before marriage worked for me, my wife, and many of our friends in college -- it's hard for me to understand why it's unreasonable to expect others to do the same. It wasn't exactly easy, and I can certainly understand why one could fail, but it doesn't strike me as an inherently unreasonable expectation. Why? Well, at root, because to say that it's unreasonable to expect others to even be capable of pulling pulling that off would be to say that they simply don't have the abilities that I have. And I have fairly deeply ingrained within me the idea that just about anyone can, with hard work, do the same things that I have done.

This has been striking me a lot over the last couple years as we have finally issued into what I think of as the upper middle class (which I define, in thoroughly relativistic fashion, as doing better financially before 30 than my parents ever did, even right before my father's retirement/death.)

Back when we lived in Los Angeles (one of the most expensive living areas in the country) and we scraped by on a single income which was not much over the poverty line for a family of four, I enjoyed the righteous feeling of insisting, "I may be poor, but I still don't think the government has any business taking money from the rich and giving it to me." It's a fun position to hold, and I milked it for all it was worth while I was qualified to hold it. (Probably much to the annoyance of some of those around me.)

Now I find myself in a less flattering position -- that of the person who has "arrived" in some sense, and now finds himself saying, "If I could get to a stable family income through hard work and dedication -- so can everyone else." This is characterized by those who disagree with the sentiment as "Telling the poor that if they aren't doing well, it's their own fault."

I don't tell the poor that. (Indeed, unless one imagines "the poor" to be an embodied character that wanders about the stage of life, I'm not sure exactly how one could without being insanely rude.) And there are a set of "advantages" that I did have even though I grew up in a lower-middle-class family and never had got a job through "connections": I had two parents who provided me with a stable family environment, an outstanding education, and a strong moral grounding. Those are incredible advantages in life, and ones I do not think I could possibly have got where I have in life without. But they aren't advantages that can be given to you by a government program.

There are, so far as I can tell, to different ways to react to the feeling of being a "self made man". My own, which I would tend to think of as an essentially conservative one, is to conclude that one's success is essentially the result of hard work and a good upbringing, and to seek to help others to receive a similar upbringing, while encouraging them to work hard. The other approach, which I would tend to think of as a "liberal" one (and which has been on my mind of late as it seems to be the approach which is followed by presidential candidate Barack Obama) is to hold that while one somehow achieved success, it was really, really hard and few other people can possibly manage to do the same, and so all sorts of preferences and programs are needed in order to others to achieve what you have.

For instance, I recently ran across this quote from Obama's book, Audacity of Hope. Speaking about meeting with the top campaign donors from his Senate campaign, he says:
But they reflected, almost uniformly, the perspectives of their class; the top 1 percent or so of the income scale that can afford to write a $2,000 check to a political candidate. They believed in the free market and an educational meritocracy; they found it hard to imagine that there might be any social ill that could not be cured with a high SAT score. They had no patience with protectionism, found unions troublesome, and were not particularly sympathetic to those whose lives were upended by movements of global capital.
Sure there are lots of social ills that can't be cured by the free market and a good SAT score, but in regards to getting a good education and a good job, the free market and a good SAT score will certainly get you a long way. And Obama should know this, as do I. Because unless he got into college based strictly on racial preferences (and he seems like a smart guy, so I doubt it) it's been his good SAT scores and the free market that have taken him from middle class Hawaii to having a very good chance of being our next president. (And making far, far more money than anyone I know in the mean time.)

Yet Obama's reaction to all this is not to say, "Look, I had a lot of obstacles before me, but with the help of a loving family, and a lot of hard work in school and afterwards, look where I am today. And you could do the same." Rather, his message is essentially that unlike him, none of us poor schmucks stand a chance of getting anywhere in life unless he's elected president so he can start a bunch of new programs that will do everything for us.

The conservative attitude sounds rather heartless, since it boils down to: "Go work hard, and you'll do well." But it stems from an implicit assumption that the person being addressed is of the same abilities as oneself. The progressive attitude, on the other hand, implicitly assumes that others do not have the same abilities as oneself.

In the end, which of these is fair, and which is demeaning?


Patrick said...

Excellent post. I think both extremes are wrong. Progressive types too often look down on people with a kind of faux pity and then pretend to help them. This kind of "help" is usually counterproductive in the end, but it makes the helper feel good about himself.

At the same time, way too many conservatives overlook the very real obstacles and challenges that prevent some people from achieving "success." It is not always correct to assume "If I did it, he can too." Maybe he can't - for reasons that are not his fault.

Somewhere in there is a happy medium, but it's very hard to find.

Anonymous said...

An attitude that "implicitly assumes that others do not have the same abilities as oneself" is in no way progressive. Modern liberal, perhaps, or other names, but there is nothing of progress in that attitude.

Anonymous said...

You are missing a lot. For one thing, you are white and in good health, and the child of parents who were in good health while you were growing up. Obama's life as a mixed-race child in Hawaii was enormously different from the experience of a mixed-race child growing up where I did, in Commerce, Texas. (Until the 1970's the county seat of Hunt, County, Texas had a sign across main street reading "The Blackest Land and the Whitest People." Imagine being not-white and reading that gem every day.) On the health question, one serious illness of one parent and the entire family is bankrupt. And no, private charity cannot pay for cancer treatment. (My husband had emergency gall bladder surgery last summer and the total bill was $80,000. Our copay was $6,000. How many people can come up with 80 grand on a moment's notice? Even 6?)

Liberals believe that no one should be barred from a decent life by accidents of birth. Nor should anyone be guaranteed a good life for the same reason. You had a lot of advantages.

Darwin said...


Um... Do you know me?

It's true that I'm "white" by a certain definition of a the term: I'm half Mexican and half European in background, but with an English last name. So I pass as being "all white". (The one time I got called a "stupid wetback" I got a couple days laughs out of it at the sheer incongruity.)

Frankly, in a certain sense, I probably would have been more "advantaged" if I'd had the last name to pass for minority instead of white. When I was in high school, I split the difference and put myself down as "Hispanic" on the PSAT and "white" on the SAT. The result was that Harvard sent me a recruiting letter, in Spanish, offering to let me apply for a special Hispanic program including remedial English classes. But they sent me no materials in English -- and I'd of course determined not to accept any race-based scholarships since I figured I wasn't the sort of Hispanic who needed race-based preferences (or could credibly accept them with an English last name.) But frankly, it's rather insulting that they only wanted me as a condescended-to minority who would need help on English (despite scoring 99th percentile on a test administered in English) but not as a mixed race person with a solid education.

And my parents were generally in good healthy -- so long as you don't count my father's seven year bout with and eventual death from cancer. (Your point on that one?)

Now, let me be clear: I had huge advantages. But those advantages had to do with coming from a stable, two parent family that put a huge emphasis on education and personal responsibility. I firmly believe that I owe everything to that. And believe me, I want to see everything possible done to see that children of all backgrounds and colors get to have those same advantages. But they're not advantages that can be provided by a government program. And all too often, government programs and preferences of the sort supported by modern liberals do all too much to undercut families and the ethic of hard work and personal responsibility.

So yes, I'd agree that Obama lacked several of the advantages that I had -- but none of the programs he endorses would help bridge those gaps. And some of his positions, like his opposition to school choice, will actively hurt poor inner city kids whose families are trying to get them into better schools.

You say, "Liberals believe that no one should be barred from a decent life by accidents of birth. Nor should anyone be guaranteed a good life for the same reason."

I think you may want to spend a little more time listening to the sort of talk that actually comes out of most thoughtful conservatives. Believe me, I don't want to see someone barred from a decent life by the accidents of birth. As Americans, I think most of us by nature root for what we perceive as the underdog. Certainly, I know that when sit down to interview a potential hire, when I see someone visibly from a minority, or with less famous colleges on his or her resume, and a list of jobs that makes it clear that this person worked up from the bottom -- I'm doubly eager to see that person fit the job. Whereas, if I see a Harvard degree and only jobs at famous companies, I'll be inclined to assume that this person isn't used to actually working hard.

So my beef is not that Obama is doing well for himself (though for political reasons I'd rather not see him be president -- I don't think he'd be a very good one.) My complaint is that he doesn't give others the respect of believing that they could work hard and do as well as he has, or (come to that) as well as Clarence Thomas or Condoleza Rice has. These are all very smart people who have got where they are by working very hard.

People from disadvantages backgrounds deserve every possible help in getting a good education, job skills, etc., etc. But what I do not think they need is quota based preferences, or to hear a candidate for president tell them that they couldn't make it on their own (implicitly because they're simply not as good as him) and so they need the government's helping hand.

Sorry for the long rant...

TS said...

Good post. I've had many of these same thoughts myself, not to say that it wouldn't be a good post if I hadn't.

One thing about SAT scores though. Economists tell us there's a core rate of unemployment of around 4%. Even if everyone had SAT scores 20% higher, that core rate presumably wouldn't change. Which is to say that poverty can't be entirely eliminated (as the gospel says).

It's popular to say that education works, and it does on an individual basis, but would it on a macro level? If everyone on the globe was well-educated, wouldn't there still be haves and have-nots merely because there is a native difference in skills and education cannot overcome that?

Kyle Cupp said...

Not sure there is such a thing as a “self made man.” Our economic success in life is dependent upon a variety of factors beyond the choices we make and our ability to work well and work hard: chance being a major factor, the decisions of other being another. Even if we all had the ability to do reasonably well in our economy—I don’t think we all do—these external factors can and do hinder people from achieving success.

I see a role for government programs and policies to assist people economically, particularly when such people are affected by injustices and when other means of addressing those injustices are shown to be inadequate.

Aki_Izayoi said...

Lol, Darwin, lol!! Thank you for providing evidence that hard work does not lead to one getting ahead. Of course, without the requisite intelligence, hard work will only lead to the pathway of drudgery. Furthermore, there are plenty of people who work hard (but still struggle with the bills and do not have good health insurance) but they do not have the necessary intelligence to gain access to good universitys and thus better jobs. Do you have any evidence that "hard work" will help those people since your remarks indicate that an integral ingredient to success is high standardize test scores which I will presume are based on innate intelligence. But without that intelligence, what value does hard work have? It does not seem that "hard work" will help the lest fortunate (though without intelligence) in the way a welfare state can compensate for their inability to earn a decent wage and health care.

Anonymous said...

Have a lousy attitude towards work, mix in alcohol abuse, drug abuse, and kids out of wedlock and you have a sure recipe for poverty. I see it all the time in both my criminal and paternity cases. On the other hand, work hard, get some education or training, avoid alcohol and drug abuse, have your kids within a successful marriage, and you are not going to be poor, unless you have abysmal luck. The welfare state can alleviate some poverty, but by creating dependence exacerbates the underlying character problems that often, albeit not always, are the root causes of poverty in this country.

Katherine said...

Darwin --

I think you need to read the whole book rather than the one paragraph you select. Obama's views seems very much like yours, a balance among personal initiative, strong families and a just social system.

In the same book you quote, Barack Obama writes "I admire many Americans of great wealth and don't begrudge their success in the least. I know that many if not most have earned it through hard work, building businesses and creating jobs and providing value to their customers."

I don't see Senator Obama talking a whole lot about handouts for the poor. He talks about quality education (as do you), rewarding hard work, and the duties of fathers towards their children.

The Opinionated Homeschooler said...

I'd just like to come down in favor of "handouts for the poor." I don't know why "handouts" are supposed to be self-evidently bad. "Handouts for the poor" in the form of free school breakfasts and lunches got me through the day (until the Methodist church food pantry-provided dinner in the evening) in my elementary school years. I'm afraid that at that age, even with a fairly good work ethic, I was unable to provide nutritious meals for myself, and not in much of a position to fix the sociological problem of living in a home with a single mother. Fortunately I wasn't above having someone else's tax dollars--presumably those of someone richer than my juvenile self--feed me and my brother.

The Opinionated Homeschooler said...

I suppose the point to the above comment was that many (perhaps most) of the "poor" are under 18. In these discussions, that tends to get forgotten.

Anonymous said...

I don't know why "handouts" are supposed to be self-evidently bad.

Apart from the facts that:
(a) We can't afford the government we have now (SS and Medicare, that means you), let alone any new handouts, and
(b) the raising of revenue to finance such things is a disincentive on many good things (like work or investment) and creates deadweight losses...

...If not for that, then sure -- hand money away.

Anonymous said...

"Liberals believe that no one should be barred from a decent life by accidents of birth."

Conservatives agree with this, but also recognize... a child born to a drug addict, or raised by a single parent (especially since today that almost guarantees a 'live-in' for that parent), etc. will STATISTICALLY not do as well. This can only be partially alleviated. There are studies that show some percentage of aid-recipients are no better off with the aid than without becuase it all goes to substances or is wasted on non-essentials instead of being used apprpriately. This is due to many factors, including never being taught how to handle money, the self-loathing induced by having a parent "not want them" and of course the "cycle of dependency" - which is a cliche, but you know... things get to be cliches for a reason.

"Nor should anyone be guaranteed a good life for the same reason."

I'm not sure what you mean by this... based on what I know of the thoughts of the liberals I know, it means "NO FAIR! Take some stuff away from that guy." That is poisonous, if that's what you mean, and it's the main reason I actually think liberalism, as practiced by Obama/Pelosi, is actually an evil. Darwin's situation should be celebrated and held up as the ideal - not demonized as "success by accident of birth" - his parents did it ... RIGHT. Much as liberals tend to hate that word.

Could you explain how you'd keep "accidents of birth" like Mr. Darwin from having an unfairly good life?

Sheesh. It even sounds evil to write that!

Darwin said...

I'm hesitant to see the discussion degenerate into an abstract discussion of "handouts". Some topics do not lend themselves well to discussion without specifics, and I would tend to think that programs to help the poor are within that category. Some "handouts" are very good and provide a huge benefit to society (and its most needy members) for very little cost. (The food programs Opinionated Homeschooler mentions probably fall well within that category.) Others are not only costly and ineffective, but provide active dis-incentives for work and marriage -- which in the long term can result in culturally devaluing behaviors that should instead be reinforced.

If I pushed things in that direction, I apologize for the lack of organization. What I was primarily hoping to focus on was the apparent split between the "I was able to get ahead, and so others should be able to do the same" and the "I was able to get ahead, but it was hard so other people probably can't do it" ways of thinking.


Thank you for providing evidence that hard work does not lead to one getting ahead. Of course, without the requisite intelligence, hard work will only lead to the pathway of drudgery.... Do you have any evidence that "hard work" will help those people since your remarks indicate that an integral ingredient to success is high standardize test scores which I will presume are based on innate intelligence....

First off, I would strongly disagree with the idea that SAT scores are based on innate intelligence. Doing well on the SAT essentially requires a good vocabulary (the result of reading a lot) and decent math abilities (the result of hard work and receiving some good teaching). While I'll admit that innate intelligence comes into it a bit, I think the importance of "intelligence" is generally far over-emphasized.

More generally, I didn't really intend SATs or even college in general to be central to my point -- though I guess by pulling the Obama quote that I did, I made it seem so. It seems to me that if you're willing to work hard, you'll generally find a way for yourself. Certainly, that's been the case for a number of my relatives who never even went to college.

As for evidence, I gather that Seligman and Duckworth (working out of U Penn) recently published an interesting study showing that willingness to delay gratification (which I think could be taken under the title of "working hard") was twice as strong a predictor of success among school age children as measured IQ.


I don't see Senator Obama talking a whole lot about handouts for the poor. He talks about quality education (as do you), rewarding hard work, and the duties of fathers towards their children.

I think my main differences with Sen. Obama in this area have to do with public education and affirmative action. I would like to see the school voucher programs (which to date, I gather, he mostly opposes) vastly expanded, and would in an ideal world prefer to see the public education system go away entirely and instead allow public funding to go to whatever schools (secular, religious or homeschooling) parents choose. Both the UK and France do something along these lines, and I think it's generally a better way of dealing with a diverse (or fractured, depending on how you look at it) society than our attempt at having one-size-fits-all public schools. On affirmative action, I'd rather see truly race blind admissions (heck, make it illegal to even ask on an application for a job or school what race someone is) than affirmative action approaches. Not only is it unfair to otherwise deserving people who are not in identified "minority groups" but also it creates the danger of cheapening the real achievements of those it seeks to help by putting the brand of "affirmative action hire" on people and thus calling into question their abilities.

The Opinionated Homeschooler said...

Sorry to contribute to any derailment. I was really trying to address your ultimate question, and put in a word for the "progressive attitude" that "implicitly assumes that others do not have the same abilities as oneself." I hold that attitude explicitly, on the grounds that most (I believe I've seen from statistics) of those in poverty, being minors, manifestly don't have the same abilities as we adults. They are legally disabled from working; they are often in schools where pedagogy and environment conspire to ensure a miserable education and likely non-graduation; they cannot obtain for themselves food, shelter, or medical care. That these circumstances may, to some extent or completely, be the fault of their parent(s), complicates the issue, but does not justify us as a society saying "No more handouts for you! Go work hard, save, get married, defer gratification." While certainly we ought to keep in mind that these are the necessary things for their parents, and so act wisely in assisting the poor, we must not forget that the children of even the laziest, most promiscuous and spendthrift parents are in no way responsible for their poverty. We can't just wash our hands of them for the sins or inabilities of their parents.

The hard part is transitioning minors into majority without their parents' baggage. I remember talking to a sixteen-year-old whose life plan was to find a way to get on disability, like her mom, since just having a baby didn't punch your meal ticket anymore. Her boyfriend had the same plan. She honestly thought this was a reasonable way to live one's life, and seemed uncomprehending when I brought up the subject of getting a job. Conversing with someone on the cusp of majority, and so deeply ignorant of the middle-class values that would provide her a decent life, sorely tests both one's progressive and conservative instincts, besides being horribly depressing.

Katherine said...

Dear Mr. Darwin --

Like you, I would like to see vouchers. But my reasoning is that I would like to see some aid to the minority of parents who elect to send their kids to Catholic and independent school. I don't see it as a cure all for our school systems and neither Senators Obama nor McCain seem to think so as well.

Affirmative Action? Again, Senators McCain and Obama have the same position and I agree with both of them. 90% of affirmative action has to do with recruitment and outreach. We have a very fine historical Black university her ein Washington - Howard U. I've this same situation several occassions where Howard is omitted n some program reaching out to students. Once I called the organization about it and they made a red faced concession that is was a mistake. Affirmative Action requires organizations to document their outreach and think it through so African Americans are not left out.

CMinor said...

Re ts's comment: frictional unemployment--accounted for by people who are between jobs as opposed to being long-term or permanently unemployed--is generally held to be around 4%. This should be taken into account whenever unemployment figures are brought up.

Re the intelligence question as dicscussed by HellKaiserRyo and Darwin: I would move that finding something one enjoys and can do well is more critical to success than is any measure of "intelligence." A good plumber, a good auto mechanic, or a good construction contractor may not be capable of high SAT scores, but all are capable of becoming "successful" (if you want to measure that in terms of standard of living.) Basic training for these and many other skilled jobs are often available at little cost to those who are willing to put in the effort.

Literacy-chic said...

Chiming in late... I could be waaay too biographical, here, but suffice to say that my economic background was similar and led me to similar conclusions. My family background was not, however, but I did get past that. My FIVE younger siblings have not, however. We are white and therefore privileged according to some, and I have tried to convince a minority friend with a stable family that she had more privilege than I did--that Senior year trip to Rome, for example. Apparently, it was the intangibles that merited that minority fellowship to grad school... She never will admit to the kind of insult that Darwin received from Harvard. My family owes a lot to United Catholic Charities of New Orleans--we affectionately referred to it as "free food." It's a pretty demeaning experience to go ask for that kind of assistance, for anyone who has never had to do it. It can definitely affect the way you perceive yourself--thus influencing that "anyone can do what I did" thing. I think I've moderated that over the years to "many people in hard circumstances with similar abilities can achieve what I have," only there's no doubt that I would have gotten further in academia had I had a more ethnic last name or attended more prestigious schools.

Haven't yet gotten to the point when I can say I've "arrived" financially... Don't think I will--too many student loans. That's the only government program that I can credibly have any opinion of. And I don't. Because I wouldn't have the education I have without them, but my husband & I have a phenomenal burden of debt to show for it. We're "renting" our education, you might say. Sometimes I think that the differences between Liberals and Conservatives on social justice issues is that Liberals claim to have all the answers while Conservatives don't. Neither position is entirely convincing! My mom would like to see more help for people who want to start small businesses, I would like to see more federal money go into grants for education, not loans--though putting pressure on schools to lower tuition is attractive though not practical.

Thinking, too, about issues of social services and family situation--my mother is in the interesting position of having ben married for 10+ years to someone who was fully vested in social security relatively early, and having raised his 5 children. After an abusive marriage and difficult divorce, she, having "wasted" those years not working, has no claim to any social security--and she's 56. Who's got the answers to that one? The problem is what Patrick said,

Progressive types too often look down on people with a kind of faux pity and then pretend to help them.

There is a kind of "should have had a job" from other quarters, though it's hard to pin that to particular political view. It's just a lack of empathy and understanding of the situation.

Anonymous said...

The conservative attitude sounds rather heartless, since it boils down to: "Go work hard, and you'll do well." But it stems from an implicit assumption that the person being addressed is of the same abilities as oneself. The progressive attitude, on the other hand, implicitly assumes that others do not have the same abilities as oneself.

In the end, which of these is fair, and which is demeaning?

The progressive attitude, as you've stated it, seems to me to be the more accurate. Others do NOT have the same abilities as me. Naturally, we could be talking about the fact that I play piano better than you, or you can cook better than I. But as our eyes tell us and our fingerprints prove, no two people are alike, inside or out.

However, we all have two things in common: our Creator and our humanity. I think we must start with the right attitude — that other people are not outside of our realm of responsibility to our fellow man, but rather the essence of it. As Christ said, "Whatever you have done to the least of these, you have done to Me."

And to decide how to deal with the poor, we should "do unto others as we would have done unto us." Mainly because that is us.

That is the point of the parable of the Good Samaritan. There is no one who is in such a high or holy position that he or she does not have a responsibility to help those who need help. In the parable, the Samaritan did not play twenty questions with the robbery victim to find out how he ended up in his condition; he just helped the best he could.

Anonymous said...

It's a fascinating question. I have in-laws who have quit well-paying jobs because the jobs were "boring". Now they are experiencing massive debt and have gone to their parents to help with the mortgage payment. One, at least, wants his old job back.

To what extent do you let someone fail? Move to an apartment? (We can all agree 'starve' is firmly on one side and the right to a 52-inch plasma tv is on the other.)

The difficult thing is determining how much is due to someone lacking abilities and how much is due to simply laziness.

We're all sinners, we all make stupid mistakes, and yet how does an individual (or a society) learn without experiencing the downside of making a mistake? At the very least, you can't run a nation that way, can you?