Character from a Vending Machine?


I was going to write a post exploring some thoughts I had on moral philosophy, but apparently David Brooks has ruined it for everyone. He wrote what may well be the definitive piece arguing that the economic decay in Baltimore (that in part led to the current uprising there) is not so much the result of policy and leadership failures but character deficiencies on the part of the residents instead. A typical excerpt:

The problem is not lack of attention, and it’s not mainly lack of money.

Actually, it’s very simple (and obvious) math: economic poverty (as opposed to the spiritual kind) is by definition a lack of material resources, therefore giving people more of the resources they lack will alleviate poverty. More simply put, if people lack money and you give them money, they will no longer lack it. In my mind, I picture David Brooks putting a couple of quarters in a vending machine, and when said machine refuses to dispense his preferred soda, he concludes that the machine does not work and perhaps never had sodas in it in the first place all the while failing to notice that the actual price for dispensation is a dollar.

Indubitably I am not the only blogger to notice and do a facepalm at the sight of Brooks’ latest pontification. There are many witty deconstructions out there such as those from Driftglass, Yastreblyansky, Jezbel, Dean Baker, et al. (Depressing fact: The neighborhood where Freddie Gray was killed has a 52% unemployment rate.) However, one thing that never gets pointed out about the (many) bad faith arguments linking poverty to character deficiency is that there is a sleight of hand taking place, a subtle conflation of the concepts of poverty and self-sufficiency. While these two concepts are related in some ways, they are in no way intertwined.

It is crucial to point out that poverty is actually the default state of life. We come into this life with exceptionally few resources and must rely on others to compensate for that reality by feeding us, clothing us, sheltering us and so forth. Poverty is not created by anything. There is always an infinite amount of potential poverty waiting in the wings if conditions ply us into it. Self-sufficiency on the other hand is a state that must be created not just through effort but material resources as well. As such, poverty is an obstacle to self-sufficiency, something to be overcome, not something caused by people’s inability to be self-sufficient. If the latter were true, certainly character might be a viable explanation for poverty, but it is demonstrably false.

Brooks and his ilk seem to be much less concerned with ending poverty than promoting self-sufficiency itself as the highest form of character. And that requires them to subtly move the debate about poverty that most of us actually want to have away from the mathematics of the situation and the quality of people’s real lives in favor of abstracting and morphing the conversation into one of causes and effects which are not dictated by anything material but only by the moral choices individuals make (which must somehow magically sync with the material results produced by the surrounding environment.)

So, let me restate all of this unequivocally. Economic poverty is not created by anything, and therefore all measures will be toward alleviating and warding off poverty, something that requires determining how to most efficiently create and distribute material resources people need and otherwise would not have. There is no other logical frame for this debate.
(Note: cross-posted in Contemplative Moorings.)


One thought on “Character from a Vending Machine?

  1. Pingback: Character from a Vending Machine? | Contemplative Moorings

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