I was trying to draft a post on paternalism and found myself rambling about other topics that I’ll save for future posts. Halfway finished with something completely tangential, a friend sent me the link to David Brooks’ Monday op-ed piece, “The Materialist Fallacy.”
Mr. Brooks argues that we must give due weight to sociological factors when assessing the social decay in the United States and not overemphasize economic factors. His position is well summarized by his naively musing, “I don’t care how many factory jobs have been lost, it still doesn’t make sense to drop out of high school.” He argues that the reasons people drop out of school are more complicated than mere economics. And while that is easily true, it belies the powerful interplay between economics and sociology.
Not long ago I ran a successful employment program for at-risk and homeless youth. And while I was successful precisely because I addressed the very same social concerns at which Brooks hints–chemical dependency, mental health, criminal activity, self-esteem, and so forth–the relationship between these things and economics is reciprocal. While you need a certain level of self-esteem and to hold down a job, doing so endows feelings of self worth. Criminal activity or a criminal record can definitely interfere with employment, but earning a paycheck can remove the need to engage in crime. Excessive drug use might make it hard to show up to work, but maintaining a steady schedule doesn’t leave very much time for using drugs. And so forth.
It isn’t as simple as blaming economics or blaming sociological factors. They both play a role, and they both must be addressed. Brooks, however, believes that the economic factors are secondary because even if impoverished communities had enough jobs, they aren’t orderly enough for it to matter. His solution is “bourgeois paternalism: Building organizations and structures that induce people to behave responsibly…”
Now this might sound like exactly the sort of thing I’ve been talking about on this blog. I mean, I did say, “The good society is achieved when an average person performs good deeds as a simple byproduct of responding intuitively to his or her environment.” How is that any different from bourgeois paternalism?
The difference is a matter of power dynamics. I want us to create our own environments, Brooks wants those in power to shape the environment for those with fewer resources. I think we should find shared values and use those as a starting point, Brooks thinks the values of middle-class, white society should be imposed universally. I suggest we Circumvent traditional power structures, Brooks suggests we expand them.
The problem with paternalism is benevolence from those in power only serves to reinforce the fact that there is a power differential in the first place. So when the power differential is the root problem, use of power by the elite can never be the solution. In fact, it is the opposite, the relinquishing of power by the elite (or, more likely, the seizing of power by the oppressed), that has the capacity to transform communities.