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“Bourgeois norms” matter in poverty fighting

The need for rediscovery and renewal of historic middle-class American values


“Bourgeois norms” matter in poverty fighting

In Who Killed Civil Society? The Rise of Big Government and Decline of Bourgeois Norms, Howard A. Husock shows how poverty fighters a century ago promoted an American three-self doctrine: self-respect, self-control, self-government. He compares that emphasis on honesty, trustworthiness, and truth with a social work textbook published in 2012 that turns the spotlight not on what the poor can do but on how the rich “oppress, marginalize, alienate, or create or enhance privilege and power.” That textbook misses the need to promote what Husock calls “constructive norms for personal behavior… the ethical soil in which individuals and their communities can thrive.”

Who Killed Civil Society? reminds me of Marsh Ward, a leftist who created Clean and Sober Streets to help drug addicts in Washington. Ward used to think society imprisoned them in a brick cell, but “if I take a guy from outside, sober him up, teach him how to read, and teach him the computer, there’s a hole in the wall for that man. He goes right through.” In the following excerpt, courtesy of Encounter Books, Husock explains his non-woke position that “bourgeois norms” matter.

Who Killed Civil Society? made WORLD’s short list for 2019 Book of the Year in the Understanding America category. —Marvin Olasky

Reflections on Social Norms

While these chapters have focused on the importance of spreading bourgeois norms to poor neighborhoods, it would be a mistake to infer that those norms are fully operative in most relatively well-off American households—or, for that matter, in affluent households in other developed countries. Longstanding values pertaining to courtship, marriage, manners, self-restraint, deferred gratification, and religious observance have been eroding across the culture.

The weakening of these values is reflected in a wide range of indicators, from the character of public discourse to the decline of groups such as the Boy Scouts, whose membership fell from 3.35 million in 2000 to just 2.5 million in 2013. The skyrocketing and debilitating use of opioids, across social classes, represents a dispirited retreat from the belief in fulfillment through work and steady self-improvement—an understanding of the difference between satisfaction and passing pleasure. Therefore, I am not arguing that poor minority groups and immigrants are the only segments of the population remote from the “aspirational culture” of which Geoffrey Canada speaks.

Nor do I assert, as some would, that the welfare state’s income transfer payments are responsible for eroding bourgeois norms. Certainly the structure of such benefits—whether for health care, housing, or general assistance—may reduce incentives to work, as when a household’s rent in the public housing system is based on a percentage of its earned income, or when a household’s increased earnings would jeopardize its eligibility for subsidized health insurance (as the economist Casey Mulligan has argued). But it is hard to dispute the view that some forms of public relief are appropriate and necessary. Poverty can be the result of sheer insufficiency and insecurity today, just as Robert Hunter believed in 1904. I do not propose a massive rollback of the welfare state, nor do I endorse the view of nineteenth-century figures such as Josephine Shaw Lowell that idleness among the poor (as well as among the rich!) is the result of a character defect. The prospects for employment depend, to some extent, on markets beyond the control of individuals.

Bourgeois norms—from education to temperance and so much more—are the ethical soil in which individuals and their communities can thrive.

Still, it is possible to be raised in a deleterious environment, a home where one is not exposed to the bourgeois norms that provide a foundation for individual and societal prosperity. The economic historian Deirdre McCloskey makes the case that ethical behavior is closely linked to the success of a free-market economy, contrary to what the critics of capitalism assert. Her masterpiece, Bourgeois Virtues, presents a historical view of the “ethical soil in which an economy grows.” My own variation on McCloskey’s theme is that bourgeois norms—from education to temperance and so much more—are the ethical soil in which individuals and their communities can thrive. This was self-evident to nineteenth-century moral reformers, but it was forgotten in the twentieth-century campaigns to ensure at least a minimum of income security for all amid the vicissitudes of the modern economy.

Charles Loring Brace understood that gambling was not going to help newsboys husband their meager income. Jane Addams understood that immigrants would have limited chances for upward mobility unless they made the effort to learn the language of their new country—one aspect of adopting its norms. Geoffrey Canada understands that when some modicum of income security is virtually assured for all American households (thanks to Wilbur Cohen and his heirs), what truly puts poor children at a disadvantage is the absence of a structured and stimulating home life.

Bringing bourgeois norms into poor neighborhoods was the goal of the settlement houses, and it is the goal of the Harlem Children’s Zone. The revival of this principle, as Joel Schwartz argues in Fighting Poverty with Virtue, offers a way of resolving “a rigidly polarized debate between left and right about poverty.” Promoting bourgeois virtues does not amount to “blaming the victim,” but rather it provides “a route out of victimhood.” There is no guarantee that even the best habits—“thrift, industry, and sobriety,” as Schwartz summarizes them—will ensure economic prosperity or even security. But absent those virtues, one’s chances of establishing and maintaining a middle-class household, and enjoying the satisfactions associated with it, are nil.

It may well be true that the existence of income transfer and redistribution programs offered by government can lure the poor into dependency. Josephine Shaw Lowell made that argument in the nineteenth century, and Charles Murray in the twentieth. There is no doubt that specific incentives in public assistance programs—such as the time limits and work requirements that were incorporated into federal public assistance law in 1996—can modify the behavior of recipients. But history makes clear that while government can provide financial assistance or basic shelter, and can set the terms for such provision, it is not the right instrument for instilling the bourgeois norms that are central to a culture of aspiration. It remains incumbent on the institutions of civil society to present a vision of the greater material comfort and life satisfaction that come from a life of thrift, sobriety, savings, education, ambition, and work.

It remains incumbent on the institutions of civil society to present a vision of the greater material comfort and life satisfaction that come from a life of thrift, sobriety, savings, education, ambition, and work.

Efforts from civil society to do exactly that are pushing against powerful tides today. In earlier times, elites believed in bourgeois norms, and were willing and eager to defend them. Elite opinion has changed. In The Contradictions of Capitalism (1976), the sociologist Daniel Bell traced a decline in the defense of bourgeois norms following the vast increase of wealth engendered by capitalism. Ironically, this wealth seeded attitudes contrary to those that had fueled the success of capitalism. Bell—himself the son of Lower East Side New York garment workers, such as those who might have gone to the Henry Street Settlement—identified a “distinctive culture and character structure” that were connected with a capitalist mode of economic operation:

In culture, this was the idea of self-realization, the release of the individual from traditional ascriptive ties (family and birth) so that he could “make” of himself what he willed. In character structure, this was the norm of self-control and delayed gratification, of purposeful behavior in the pursuit of well-defined goals. It is the interrelationship of this economic system, culture and character structure, which comprised bourgeois civilization.

Another key to the success of emerging capitalism was a union of “asceticism and acquisitiveness,” or to put it another way, a combination of the “bourgeois prudential spirit of calculation” with a “restless Faustian drive.” In Bell’s analysis, “The intertwining of the two impulses shaped the modern conception of rationality. The tension between the two imposed a moral restraint on the sumptuary display that had characterized earlier periods of conquest.”

The prosperity of the twentieth century, however, led to the “unraveling of that unity” of the purposeful and the ascetic life. With wealth came Modernism, emphasizing creativity, self-expression, and unlimited experience. Modernism was “the agency for the dissolution of the bourgeois world view,” according to Bell. “Modernism has been a rage against order and, specifically, against bourgeois orderliness.” Most crucially, it brought the insistence “that experience is to have no boundaries on its cravings, that there be ‘nothing sacred.’”

Writers after Bell, on the other hand, have observed that while the affluent may be reluctant to use such terms as “middle-class values,” and even more so to preach their benefits, that doesn’t mean they don’t live by such values. David Brooks coined the label “bourgeois bohemian” for those who combine the expression of Modernist attitudes with the practice of bourgeois behavior in their own lives. Others have observed that the reluctance to endorse bourgeois values openly has had especially ill effects on the poor, who become entrapped in a culture of dependency and financial limitation as the welfare state expands. Charles Murray has posited that some of the poor remain poor simply because they lack the motivation to go to work in the morning.

Myron Magnet, former editor of City Journal, the Manhattan Institute’s quarterly, linked the emergence of a permanently poor “underclass” mired in poverty and antisocial behavior to a failure of the “majority culture” to endorse bourgeois values. In his landmark book, The Dream and the Nightmare, he wrote that “American culture underwent a revolution in the 1960s, which transformed some of its most basic beliefs and values,” and that “many of the new culture’s beliefs downplayed the personal responsibility, self-control, and deferral of gratification that it takes to succeed.” Magnet concluded, “When these new attitudes reached the poor, particularly the urban, minority poor, the result was catastrophic.” Kay Hymowitz, our colleague at the Manhattan Institute, has built upon Magnet’s insight, noting that the affluent have continued to live their own lives based on bourgeois values, and the result is an increasing divergence between the lives and prospects of the rich and the poor. In Marriage and Caste in America, Hymowitz linked the likelihood of intergenerational poverty with the failure of poor households to follow what she called a “life script” based on education, raising children within marriage, and providing the sort of mental stimulation that Geoffrey Canada has sought to encourage at his Baby College—what she calls the parents’ mission.

The question, then, is whether a successful promotion of bourgeois norms aimed at creating a culture of aspiration among the poor can coexist with the welfare state.

Daniel Bell saw an inevitable push in democracies to reduce income inequality by political means—as apt an observation today as it was in the 1970s. Income redistribution programs, including health insurance for the poor (Medicaid) and a wide range of cash assistance, are clearly a permanent fixture of the political system, though the terms of receipt may vary. (In 2018, for instance, the Trump administration proposed a work requirement for those receiving Medicaid.) Latter-day acolytes of Josephine Shaw Lowell who might believe that drastic cuts in transfer payments are the surest way to motivate a culture of aspiration—through desperation—are likely to be disappointed. The question, then, is whether a successful promotion of bourgeois norms aimed at creating a culture of aspiration among the poor can coexist with the welfare state.

The first step toward reviving a culture of aspiration is to acknowledge that norms matter, and that changing them calls for serious effort from outside the agencies of government. Americans have become accustomed to new “programs” as a response to social problems, so it runs against the political grain to assert that no new government program can do the job. A renewal of bourgeois norms will require decentralized action and personal commitment—such as Stanley Druckenmiller’s dedication of much of his personal fortune to the Harlem Children’s Zone. Or Alice Chapman’s decision to create something similar in southern Ohio. Or Geoffrey Canada’s personal decision to steer clear of rap music stars who offer to tour the Children’s Zone. In short, it requires a renaissance of civil society. What would such a renaissance mean for the multibillion-dollar social service state? It cannot easily be reined in or rolled back. Each program mounted by entities such as the Administration for Children and Families not only has a politically popular agenda—improving nutrition, combating drug abuse, promoting early education—it also has a constituency of employees. Shuttering these agencies, or even reducing their budgets, would result in political firestorms. Can the staff of such agencies at least be trained and encouraged to do no harm? That would entail returning social work to its roots of friendly visiting: exposing households to the idea that life choices can improve life chances, rather than compensating them with services for being victims of an unjust social structure.

In the longer run, one can hope for the visions of people like Geoffrey Canada, Alice Chapman, and Mack McCarter to take hold more widely. If a moral rearmament occurs, the perceived need for social services could diminish. Wilbur Cohen hoped that an income safety net would free those receiving help to work and strive, such that ultimately they would not need financial help. But that, of course, did not prove to be a justified faith.

Nor can one be pollyana-ish about full employment for all the willing and able. The rapid pace of technological change means that even those who are skilled, disciplined, and motivated can face disruption—and unemployment. Nonetheless, the wisdom of Jane Addams has enduring pertinence: “Working people … require only that their aspirations be recognized and stimulated, and the means of attaining them put at their disposal.”

The twin ideas of personal encouragement and individual responsibility, and the message that the social and economic systems in America will welcome those who are prepared to take advantage of opportunity, add up to an optimistic vision for the future, but a vision that is supported by history. It merits rediscovery and renewal.

From Who Killed Civil Society? The Rise of Big Government and Decline of Bourgeois Norms by Howard A. Husock. Published by Encounter Books. © 2019. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

Howard A. Husock Howard is vice president for policy research at the Manhattan Institute, where he is also a contributing editor to City Journal.


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