Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Of Vice and Men

Theodore Dalrymple, the British essayist whose background is as a medical doctor and psychiatrist, has an old-fashioned view of the world that allows for right and wrong and a belief that Western Civilization is the best answer yet devised to the human situation. Which means a lot of people will pigeonhole him as a conservative.

Here, he picks up two of his pet peeves from American medical journals. The second is articles on childhood obesity that focus on government as the party exclusively responsibile for solutions.

What was very striking about the two articles in the NEJM, however, was the complete absence of reference in either of them to the responsibilities of parents towards their own children, or to the cultural context in which parents have largely abandoned such responsibilities. The articles mentioned that television advertisements had made it difficult for parents to control their offspring’s diet, and that they somehow transferred the onus for making a choice about diet from the parents to the children. A majority of children now claimed that it was they, not their parents, who decided what they ate.

How old is this tendency in America? At least as old as the 1830s. Back then there was a segment of the body politic that blamed societal vices (always the same ones: crime, poverty, substance abuses) on systematic social inequalities, class oppresion, or corrupt institutions.

And there was a segment that saw individuals making bad choices or abjuring all choices. They saw a culture that too often encouraged and rewarded laziness and sensual temptation and seemed to gnaw the roots of moral behavior.

The poor are not poor because the rich are rich. Or are they? Self-improvement can raise people out of the traps they were born into. Or can it?

The unresolved tensions certainly go depper than 1830. The questions, and their clashing answers, add up to who we are, Americans.

We're mostly descended from people who left homes all over the world to come here because they believed in their individual capability to succeed on the strength of their own efforts. But they also came from places where they knew the social institutions and established religions and aristocracies kept them locked out of opportunity to succeed at home.

The believer in America says this place is different -- exceptional -- because it was built to leave the paths to success open. Equal opportunity is our mantra. The other voice says the game can be rigged, even here, and too often is. The fortunes of the two political parties have been tied to nothing more firmly than to which of those two visions the voters have uppermost in mind on election day.

The dilemma has nothing to do with big government/small government labels. The advocate of individual responsibility often wishes to use the government to encourage people in the right choices, or to make the wrong ones more difficult to obtain.

Advocates of change in the social order to promote equality and justice rarely can pass up the chance to use government to accomplish it. The few cases I can think of where they are anti-big-government are the cases where the government is so involved in protecting or promoting the system deemed evil that the advocates of change would rather the government die if it took down the institution with it. Garrisonian abolitionists, for instance.