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Week of: February 25, 2001

Finding Out What R-E-S-P-E-C-T Means

by F.R. Duplantier

Good intentions aren't enough to make charitable efforts succeed. High expectations for the beneficiaries and an understanding of human nature are also essential.

"Compassionate conservatism . . . charges that liberal prescriptions, good intentions notwithstanding, have not only failed but have in fact made the lot of the poor worse over the last five years," observes Myron Magnet, editor of City Journal. "Why else, after decades of growing opportunity, are the worst-off more mired in dependency, illegitimacy, drug use, school failure, and crime than they were when the experiment began?" he asks. "How can this be, after decades of vigorous new job creation that has seamlessly integrated millions of low-skill immigrants into the mainstream economy, and after civil rights acts and a real cultural change have together opened the society to minorities as never before?"

In the current issue of City Journal, a quarterly publication of the Manhattan Institute, Magnet argues that the liberal nostrums "don't work because they are based on a psychological error that shows no understanding of the human heart. Telling the poor that they are mere passive victims, whether of racism or of vast economic forces, not only is false," he contends, "but is also psychologically destructive, paralyzing the poor with thoughts of their own helplessness and inadequacy. To succeed in life, we all need to have a certain self-confidence and optimism that keeps us going when we hit obstacles and disappointments, as everyone does."

Magnet decries the debilitating effect on the poor of the liberal's assumption that "forces aligned against them are just too strong for them to overcome. And telling the poor that the state can relieve them of personal responsibility and promote their happiness while they remain just passive recipients has the same effect," he asserts. "It treats them as if they are not the protagonists of their own lives, not moral agents with the same capacity for self-direction as the rest of us. The poor need the larger society's moral support," Magnet insists; "they need to hear the message of personal responsibility and self-reliance, the optimistic assurance that if they try -- as they must -- they will make it. They need to know, too, that they can't blame 'the system' for their own wrongdoing."

Magnet laments that "welfare degraded rather than uplifted too many of its supposed beneficiaries, children and adults alike. Work, by contrast, by making an individual responsible for herself and her family, provides a road to self-respect and equal citizenship," he argues. "So far, now that the welfare rolls have been cut by 50 percent across the nation, former welfare recipients pushed out into the workforce, at however low a level, have told reporters that they are indeed finding it uplifting."

Magnet speculates that, "as welfare recipients got jobs and adjusted to the requirements of work, the discipline of the work ethic -- which really is an ethic -- improved all aspects of their character. After all," he notes, "the Victorian and Edwardian formulators of the work ethic understood that it is work that gives you a sense of your own powers and abilities; it is work that gives you self-esteem and self-confidence. So part of the problem of the underclass is that becoming merely the passive recipients of benefits gives them a kind of ghostly existence in their own eyes."

 

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