Because there’s no real way to dispute the fundamental moral bankruptcy of neoliberalism without it, the rhetorical trick of blaming the victim is never too far from the surface of American society, regardless of the subject. In pop culture, we hear it when ESPN blowhards indict women for their partners’ violence. In foreign policy, we see it when Wall Street Journal Op-Eds blame Palestinian children for the IDF’s bombs. And in the realm of domestic policy, the blame-the-victim logic is so widespread that I struggle to think of even one major political debate in which it isn’t being pushed by Republicans or Democrats. Often, it’s both.
Unsurprisingly, though, no single issue that attracts more widespread support for blaming the victim than poverty, where it’s often taken as a given that a person’s inability to provide herself with the material comforts of a modern life stems from her own shortcomings, rather than the failure of the social and economic system at large. Examples of this can be found in Republican-controlled state legislature initiatives across the country. But, as if to make the lives of everyone (besides the poor) easier, former vice presidential nominee and current House Republican leader Paul Ryan has put many of them together in his newest compendium of wonky Big Ideas, a “discussion draft” of supposedly anti-poverty measures called “Expanding Opportunity in America.”
Now, while Paul Ryan has previously and repeatedly mentioned his love of Ayn Rand, the crackpot cult-leader and novelist who made it her life’s mission to turn a sociopathic degree of selfishness into a highbrow political ideology, it’s worth acknowledging upfront that his poverty “draft” is not nearly as Objectivist as his infamous budgets. Brian Beutler rightly notes that despite its many flaws, Ryan’s draft “proposes spending more taxpayer money on poor people” by expanding the earned income tax credit — something that Ayn Rand, despite the EITC’s market-oriented construction, would never do. Indeed, Ryan’s ideas for “expanding opportunity” are such a philosophical break with his earlier plans to redistribute income upward that some have persuasively claimed he has no choice but to disown them, make a clean break with his former self, or risk being totally intellectually incoherent. (He’s a politician, so I think I can guess which option he’ll take.)
But even if we acknowledge all of this, and even if we grant that a run-of-the-mill Republican is preferable to a delusional Objectivist, Ezra Klein and other non-conservative pundits are still going way too far when they argue, as Klein recently did, that lefties should embrace Ryan’s plan with open arms. Larger EITC or no, Ryan’s plan still rests on a rather fundamental misconception of the poor, one that centrists like Klein may share but that people who want to think of themselves as members of a leftist tradition stretching all the way back to the French Revolution never should: that those who suffer under the capitalist order have no one to blame but themselves.
This is most obvious when you look at the portion of Ryan’s draft that has attracted the most scorn, the idea that poor people, if they want to use government programs, should sign a “contract” that would outline various steps and benchmarks they’d be responsible for — or else suffer the consequences of undefined “sanctions.” What kind of steps and benchmarks these are, Ryan doesn’t say, which is perhaps a gesture toward his beloved subsidiarity (the Catholic belief that authority should be devolved as much as possible), albeit one that is particularly hollow within the context of a policy that quite literally would have government agents micromanaging poor people’s lives. The point is, however, that Ryan assumes poverty in America cannot be adequately addressed by doing seemingly obvious things like giving people money or creating well-paying jobs that tackle vital public needs, but that it instead requires the poor to learn from a government-provided surrogate parent how to wrest themselves free from that dreaded “tailspin of culture” Ryan’s previously warned us about.
Given that troublesome assumption, what explains the center’s positive response to Ryan’s latest? Coming from “reformicon” Reihan Salam, a longtime Ryan cheerleader, it’s not a surprise. Salam agrees that Ryan’s plan is paternalistic, but considers that one of its virtues. Not because Salam and Ryan think single mothers and people of color — who are disproportionately numerous among the poor — have something wrong with them, but simply because, according to Salam, “getting more money from the government doesn’t really make you less poor” (emphasis, and logic, his). Salam seems to think that while government assistance is premised on an arbitrary and unequal balance of power, meaning that the state could strip you of your guaranteed income or public job at a whim, the gainfully employed live in a land where workers and their bosses communicate on equal grounds and with mutual respect. If I thought the world worked that way, I’d probably assume those getting a raw deal from the market economy have something wrong with them as well.
The positive murmurs from Klein and other left-leaning centrists don’t come from any assumptions quite as ideological and blinkered as Salam’s. But to a significant degree, centrists like him also buy into Ryan and Salam’s blame-the-victim premise. To be fair, any anti-poverty plan that doesn’t put neoliberalism squarely in the cross hairs is going to be guilty of this crime. Any proposal that assumes American workers have seen few economic gains since the mid-to-late 1970s because they lack the “new” economy’s requisite skills, or because public educators are not doing a good enough job, or because they cling too desperately to failing systems — like unions or guaranteed benefits — is saying, whether it admits it or not, that the victims of globalization and deregulation are themselves partly to blame. Plenty of Democrats, from President Obama on down, push at least one or all of these explanations when they’re discussing economic inequality and stagnant wages — so it’s no surprise to find Dem-friendly pundits like Klein doing so, too.
To get a sense of where this blame-the-victim consensus is likely to take us in the years to come, look no further than the ongoing education reform movement. Not every one of its goals are silly or misguided. (I’ve yet to come across an argument against weakening “last in, first out” that I found dispositive, for example.) But the overall idea behind the movement — that America’s middling test scores and poor kids’ trouble living the American Dream of social mobility are not the product of neoliberalism’s reliance on exploitation and inequality but instead underperforming teachers — blames the victims of poverty rather than the economic system itself. Not incidentally, well-to-do Americans on both sides of the aisle enthusiastically support the education reform movement, even if they differ on the particulars.
As far as I know, no one yet has tried to transfer Ryan’s poverty “contracts” into the educational sphere — but, as the cliché goes, all things in due time.