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Iris Young, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump

I read Iris Young’s last book, Responsibility for Justice, last week. My thoughts keep going back to that book after hearing Hillary Clinton speak to Democrats one day after Donald Trump spoke to Republicans in Arkansas. Young points out that conservatives and liberals approach the question of responsibility from different directions and, therefore, focus their remedies on different things. Republicans argue that income inequality is largely the responsibility of the individual. That is, a person is poor because of the history of bad choices that person made. Young describes this view this way: “the social segments who tend to be poor do not take responsibility for their lives as much as members of other groups, and too often engage in deviant and self-destructive behaviors.” Welfare only makes things worse because it rewards bad decisions and poor character. Remedies therefore should be minimal and must focus on “fixing” the individual. Hence the Republican focus on tax cuts for higher income individuals (this rewards good decisions) and cuts to and regulation of social programs, e.g., reduced benefits, work requirements, time limits on unemployment compensation etc.
Young points out that this focus on individual responsibility will work only if three assumptions are true: that background conditions are basically fair and not stacked against the poor, that the non-poor properly fulfill their obligations without hurting the poor while doing so, and that poverty has a single cause.

Democrats tend to focus on the first two of these assumptions. Their suggested remedies are often structural and redistributive. Thus, raising the minimum wage tweaks the background wage structure, anti-discrimination laws fix employer behavior, and tax policies even the economic playing field. Blaming the poor for their poverty defects attention from the behavior of economic elites whose actions may be responsible for an individual’s poverty. The actions of many in the financial industry exacerbated the 2008 economic collapse which plunged many into poverty. Thus, getting tough with Wall Street and prosecuting financial crimes redirects attention to the behavior of the non-poor.

Like Republicans, however, Democrats tend to see only one cause to poverty: structural unfairness. This singular focus deflects attention from individual responsibility Young argues that reality is more complex. Poverty is a mixture of individual and structural issues. People are poor even though they generally made all the right decisions while some people who did everything wrong are rich. She suggests that policy makers must focus on both aspects of responsibility. They must make sure that the background system is not stacked against the poor without ignoring the responsibility each individual has to make good decisions over the course of their lifetime.

Hillary focused a lot on structural issues: the minimum wage, Wall Street reform and prosecutions, pre-k education, college access, equal pay for equal work. But there were also nods to personal responsibility. She began her catalog of policy prescriptions with phrases like “someone who works hard and plays by the rules” or “hard working people.” The implication is that there will be a deal between the individual and the government: if a person has the “right” values and makes “good” decisions about their life, then the government will do everything it can to remove any barriers to that person’s success. For Republicans, the deal is something like this: if you do the right things and make good decisions, we won’t let people who fail to do those things to share in your prosperity. Thus, Jeb Bush’s remark about working longer hours and his focus on cutting social programs was another way of saying that if you work hard, you will be rewarded and don’t worry about slackers. They won’t get much help.

Although Hillary is not so explicit as Bernie Sanders, she seems to believe that the current system is broken and favors the wealthy. Sanders says that. Hillary implies it. Republican rhetoric is more consistent with their assumptions with talk of “job creators” and “makers v takers.”

In the end, it is important to remember that each perspective has some validity but neither is sufficient. The market’s flaws reinforce existing social inequities and individual bad choices diminish prospects for success. Young’s hopeful message is that we can do two things at once. She wants to bring back the idea that although we bear individual responsibility for the choices we make, we also bear collective responsibility for each other. A caring, dare I say responsible, society, will never neglect that latter for the easy moralizing of the former.

One last thing: Young, like Hannah Arendt before her, distinguishes between guilt and responsibility. But that is a subject for another day.

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