New York then and now

Here’s something I wrote for a local newspaper a few years back. It didn’t get published then, so I thought I’d give it a second chance now:

Senator Moynihan noted not long ago [in The Public Interest] that in 1943 there were 73,000 persons on relief in New York City. In that year there were 44 homicides by gunshot in the city, and the illegitimacy rate was 3 percent.

In 1992 in New York City there were almost 1,000,000 people on public assistance, 1,499 homicides by gunshot and an illegitimacy rate of 45 percent. The first set of numbers are for our own city within living memory but they sound more like they’re from Mars. Why are the figures 13 to 34 times higher today than 50 years ago?

Someone who believed in liberal explanations of social problems might conclude that in New York in 1943 there was no race or sex discrimination, educational funding was far more generous than today’s $8,000 per child, strict gun control laws were in force, and the public schools featured comprehensive sex education unhindered by moralistic prejudices. All those conclusions would be so wrong as to be laughable. So why are they wrong? Why did things go better when there was apparently less done to deal with problems?

The answer is that liberal explanations focus on how government can solve the problems of individuals and overlooks how people’s lives depend on the social and moral setting families and communities create for them. It’s not the government that keeps people from making a mess of their lives. It’s not individuals all by themselves, either. The people who avoid making a mess of things are usually people who grow up in families and communities with clear-cut and practical standards and so know better. Like it or not, family and background matter.

To take illegitimacy as an example, nature has arranged things so that getting pregnant is easy and pleasant, and having a child has attractions as well. So girls will get in trouble, as people used to say, unless they, their friends and their families have attitudes and habits that keep it from happening. In 1943 those attitudes and habits were in place. Girls who got pregnant were in big trouble, and the boys who got them there had a lot of explaining to do. As a result, there weren’t many illegitimate births.

Today things are very different. The current system may seem nonjudgmental and humane, but is it really better than what preceded it? One result of the current system is that far more unmarried girls have babies. Unwed mothers are likely to be poor, and under the current system poverty has become mostly a problem of mothers and and their children. Has that been a step forward?

Government social programs go wrong because they make people depend on the government instead of on the people around them. Programs that loosen ties to family and community hurt us all in the long run because it is the people we live with and not the government who teach us how to act. We have had such programs in New York for a long time now, and Senator Moynihan’s figures suggest what the consequences have been.

1 thought on “New York then and now”

  1. The point that it’s not
    The point that it’s not government that keeps people out of trouble, and it’s not individuals either, but rather the totality of the social networks in which one is embedded, is so fundamental—and yet think of how weird and strange this idea would sound to most contemporary conservatives! Most conservatives today can’t stop singing “tolerance, diversity, inclusion, opportunity” as the meaning of America. They have little or no concept of the social order that is needed to make a decent life possible, and what is required to create and maintain such a social order. Their idea of order is all filtered through individualism. Think of Rush Limbaugh. Think of most conservative columnists. Think of most Republicans. On some level many of these people have an inchoate longing for membership in a larger social whole with loyalties to the past, that’s what makes them conservatives, but they don’t know how to express that longing except in terms of the worship of the American ideal of individual opportunity.

    And so the sterile debate has gone on for so many years, with the only mainstream opponents to the socialist liberals being the individualist conservatives, and with the concept of a social and cultural order compatible with freedom—ordered freedom—virtually unknown in mainstream discourse.


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