on culture and poverty

“The central conservative truth,” Senator Moynihan famously wrote, “is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself.”

This is the great issue of the present, or so it seems to me. But there are more positions than Mohnihan?s liberalism and conservatism. In fact, we can classify responses along three axes. First, materialists believe that to succeed and to be happy, you need money–or things that money can buy. Their opponents are cultural determinists who believe that what matters is the “fit” between a person’s norms, habits, and beliefs (on one hand) and the dominant culture of modern capitalism (on the other). A second axis runs from love for this dominant corporate culture to hatred of it. The third axis runs from those who think that government is helpful to those who consider it incompetent or corrupt.

When there are three axes, there are eight pure positions available, along with various moderate views. I think the following combinations are particularly serious and influential today:

Materialist left-liberalism: This is the view that poor people mainly need money (or its equivalent) to get ahead. They should get financial help from the state. However, no one should try to manipulate their values or beliefs.

Materialist libertarianism:: Everyone would prosper (to the maximum extent possible) if it weren?t for state institutions and regulations that distort choices, block exchanges, and forcibly educate people in bad habits and beliefs.

Left cultural criticism: What determines success is the fit between a person?s culture and the dominant, white collar, market system, with its demands for discipline and rationality. However, that system is wickedly imperialistic and dehumanizing. Capitalism, not working class and traditional cultures, must be changed.

Moynihan-style neoliberalism: What keeps some poor people poor is a set of habits and values that don’t prepare them well for a competitive market economy. However, the state can and should make them more competitive. For instance, if some parents don’t read to their preschoolers, then four year-olds should be in Head Start. If some households and neighborhoods impart anti-intellectual lessons, then we should lengthen the school day and year and toughen academic curricula.

Cultural conservatism: What keeps some people poor are their habits and values, but the state is bad at changing cultures. In fact, it tends to reinforce the worst cultural traits among the poor. It would be better to reduce state influence on values. For example, more students should attend religious schools.

I have no answers, but I suspect that: (1) Some degree of materialism is still important. For instance, people would be better off if they had affordable or free health insurance. (2) Nevertheless, there is a conflict between many subcultures and the dominant, corporate-capitalist world. That conflict means that no amount of redistribution will end poverty. While the redistributive programs of the twentieth century (Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid) are valuable, they leave cultural problems unresolved. (3) The record of the state in changing values and habits is neither excellent nor awful, but mixed. There have been successful initiatives, e.g., Quontum Opportunities Program, which cut dropout rates in half. There have also been numerous failures.

One thought on “on culture and poverty

  1. Russell Arben Fox

    This is a very interesting schematic, Peter. I’m still trying to work out all the angles; I’m not sure it entirely fits together, but it certainly is revealing. Maybe it would be helpful if the terms were kept consistent across your descriptions? For instance, the opposite of “materialist libertarianism,” which you describe as “left cultural criticism,” might be better labelled simply “culturalist socialism” (or “culturalist communitarianism”), which itself is distinct from “culturalist conservatism.” Anyway, just an idea.

    Put me down for somewhere between “left cultural criticism” and “Moynihan-style neoliberalism,” wherever that exactly is.

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