Building the Virtuous Neighborhood

Even if we can agree that the current welfare regime doesn’t encourage virtue, we have to give a constructive account of one that will. We have to describe a way back more comprehensive than “quit whining and find a job.”

.. Relationships discipline as well as support, and good behavior often comes from good neighbors.

.. because such extraction decreases the concentration of good neighbors, explicitly favoring a geographical arrangement that segregates the best and the brightest into places where they can maximize their wealth and time. If we actually want to deal with the cultural malaise that has fueled the messianic politics that threatens our republic, then we will have to reverse the trends that create more distance between the disciplined and the undisciplined.

.. A pundit castigating my patient to “rent a U-Haul” (as Kevin Williamson would do), is about as useful as me scribbling “get a job” on a prescription pad.

Conservatism Fails to Act Responsibly

His critiques of right-wing elites land beautifully (admittedly, their intellectual and moral stagnation make such a task easier every day), but he goes further to reveal an equal or greater disdain for the “white underclass.”

As Williamson discusses the ugly world of poverty that he grew up in, he gets to a line that feels the most true and is thus the most insidious: “The more you know about that world, the less sympathetic you’ll be to it.”

He intends this to skewer the chattering classes of liberals who are overflowing with sympathy for the abstract “poor” but squirm at the thought of sharing a school or subdivision with actual poor people.

Feeding such people the lie that their problems are mainly external in origin — that they are the victims of scheming elites, immigrants, black welfare malingerers, superabundantly fecund Mexicans, capitalism with Chinese characteristics, Walmart, Wall Street, their neighbors — is the political equivalent of selling them heroin. (And I have no doubt that it is mostly done for the same reason.) It is an analgesic that is unhealthy even in small doses and disabling or lethal in large ones. The opposite message — that life is hard and unfair, that what is not necessarily your fault may yet be your problem, that you must act and bear responsibility for your actions — is what conservatism used to offer

.. These ideologues have been shocked to see their principles abandoned in favor of vulgar might-makes-right tribalism and you can find any number of well-written essays from this past year reckoning with this disappointment and cursing the alliance of fools, cowards, crazies, and racists that have come to dominate right-wing institutions.

.. If all conservatism has to offer is a stern message about personal responsibility and a repetition of something conservative-sounding you heard from that one black friend of yours, it’s no wonder nobody wants it. It’s simply not a political philosophy you can govern with, win votes with, or even communicate with.

.. If personal responsibility and tax cuts were the path to prosperity and virtue, then Kansas and Alabama ought to be shining exemplars of governance.

  1. .. The first way he’s wrong relates to common tropes about welfare: the more poor people you know, the more you realize how little they get from the government and how few of them actually get anything. The most shocking anecdotes get our attention – a cousin or a friend of a friend who is a lazy drug addict and gets a disability payment – but these examples are far from representative. You can only know that, though, if you are actually spending time with poor people.
  2. .. it actively discourages friendship with the poor and praises the sort of ignorance his statement is meant to lambast liberals for.
    • our obsession with meritocracy. When we are constantly encouraging people who are born with or acquire the virtues necessary to live a stable life to shake the dust off their feet and abandon their dysfunctional friends, those left behind stagnate in ever-more-toxic dysfunction.
    • Conservatism rejects the deterministic economics that denies people their agency, but the modern conservative movement has preached an atomizing freedom that eviscerates the structures and relationships that help people to exercise agency. This is why the eloquent ideas of politicians like Mike Lee or Ben Sasse ring hollow:
    • The most prominent right-wing writers at various outlets .. are always suggesting the old wineskins of 20th-century conservatism, which is part of why their reformocon ideas have never taken off.
    • .. conservatism needs to decide what it is we’re trying to conserve and rewrite everything else around that.
    • Conserving the institutions that help people to flourish – churches and families most prominent among them – is more fundamental than “liberty” or “small government”.
    • .. Williamson’s formulation is backwards: the more that one chooses to love and share in the pain of the poor, the more intimately you will want to know them and be friends with them.