I’m going to tell you a disturbing secret: Human beings are very flawed and make terrible life decisions which hurt themselves and others. No form of legislation is ever going to change that.
I am where I am in life because of a series of decisions — some good and some bad. I had a lot of advantages that some people don’t have. I came from a relatively affluent family with educated parents who taught me how to fit in among the American middle class. I had some disadvantages that some didn’t have. I came from a dysfunctional family which had serious and ongoing problems.
Everybody comes from some combination of advantages and disadvantages. Some get luckier than others. In fact, some people come from such dire circumstances that we’ve learned not to expect anything of them. We’ve given up on them — and we’ve essentially told them they ought to give up on themselves.
In individual cases, we can look at lives and see where people make horrible decisions and then continue to stay with those decisions even when the consequences are obvious. Many of us have heavy hearts about the horrible lives that some people live. So why do our efforts fail so badly?
It’s because we try to take responsibility for others. We want to make decisions for them. We demand that politicians make up rules to “protect” them from the consequences of their own actions. It’s because we are seeking political solutions to what are essentially issues of personal values.
I’m thinking about this tonight because of something I saw on Reddit which was making fun of a certain type of irresponsible young woman. At first, it seemed like just another cruel online joke, but I started reading the comments. Although people were joking about it, they all knew exactly the same sort of person — a person who’s made a particular kind of bad decisions and ended up in a terrible situation. Many were commenting that it could have been cousins or neighbors of theirs — specific people who fit the profile.
You could create all sorts of ugly profiles — the middle class guy who’s overweight and unhappily married, for instance, who never grows up because he’s out drinking with the boys all the time — but that’s not really the point. It’s not about which groups are worse than others.
The simple reality is that each of these people creates a horrible life with one bad decision after the other. These decisions lead to poverty, broken children, abusive relationships and early death.
Because we want to change this, we turn to political solutions. We demand that the government teach “those people” how to act like us. We demand that government somehow “educate” these people and give them job skills so they can support themselves. We demand that government take away the substances with which these people abuse themselves.
We try to get government to impose on them the decisions we believe they ought to make. This is never going to work.
No matter what the intentions are, change always starts with an individual decision. It’s a decision to adopt a different set of values and ideas. And that’s very, very difficult.
I can hand somebody money. I can give someone a place to live. I can bribe him into enrolling in a job-skills program. With enough money, those sorts of things are easy. But unless a person has made a decision to change his values, none of the well-intentioned efforts will bear fruit.
Some people are simply more interested in entertaining themselves and drinking with their friends all the time than they are in changing their lives. Some men are accustomed to sponging off women they can abuse — and they’re happy with this lifestyle. Some women are accustomed to having babies with four different men — men who won’t be around in six months — and they can’t figure out why men with better values don’t want them.
There are dozens or hundreds of patterns that people fall into — and they stay there because they decide to stay there.
Some people would say that’s “blaming the victims,” but that misses the point. This isn’t about blame. It’s about process. It’s about how this happens — and how it can change.
People who pull themselves out of horrible life situations do so because they start changing their decisions. They decide they don’t need to spend time with the friends who have made similar life decisions. They decide they’re going to stop blaming other people — even when other people had a real role in creating their problems — and take responsibility for fixing things themselves. They decide they have to set goals and then hold themselves accountable. They decide that it feels good to be responsible and to take care of themselves.
Many of these people need help along the way in getting out of the situations they’re in. That’s obvious. But most people try to take the short cut of telling government to fix things — instead of figuring how how to reach the people in need and teach them that they have to choose to change.
For many reasons, government is never going to be able to fix the problems we see around us. (Government actually creates many of those problems and enables the continuation of others, but that’s a more complicated story.) Unless individual people choose to make substantial changes in their lives, no aid is going to help.
Political conservatives try to paint the situation as a matter of, “These worthless people are simply no good. There’s nothing we can do about it. Political progressives try to frame it more like, “These people aren’t responsible for their lives because of poverty and racism and greed of the wealthy.”
Both answers are equally wrong.
Conservatives are wrong because they want to wash their hands of such people — to permanently shun them as “stupid” and “immoral.” Progressives are wrong because they want tax-funded programs which mostly bypass the core issue of individual choice and empowerment. (And that also ignores my moral objection to government stealing money from one individual to give it to another individual or group, but that’s beyond the scope of this.)
If the “redneck trailer trash” and the inner-city thugs — who are such stereotypes largely because they do exist — are going to change, it has to start with individual decisions by those who want to change.
The real question is how those of us who want societal change can preach this gospel in a way that it will be effective. Once more and more people are willing to take responsibility for their lives and change their values, then we can argue about how much financial help they might get and where that help will come from. But until a person’s values change, no amount of money is going to fix his or her life.
Do you want your world to change? Do you want to eliminate poverty and racism and a hundred other ills? Start with figuring out how to make individuals want to change. Start figuring out how you can help spread that gospel.
Until that happens, we’re going to keep seeing generation after generation fall into the same traps, no matter how much money governments take from productive people and give to well-meaning aid programs.