The Wire, HBO’s grim drama about life in a dysfunctional city of Baltimore, has become something of a cultural phenomenon. For some it’s the best TV series ever. I watched some of the first season, but it was a bit too grim for me. The series has gained intellectual respect for what it supposedly shows about life in modern America’s inner cities, so it is studied, commented upon and analogized to real life.
Francis Fukuyama, who famously wrote “The End of History” after the fall of the Soviet Union, does that in a piece titled, “Down to The Wire.” To Fukuyama the most impressive achievement of the show is:
[T]he way it humanizes an entire segment of American society that most white Americans would just as soon ignore (and generally do). By humanize, I do not mean sentimentalize or whitewash. Many of the drug dealers, as well as some of the cops, are vicious people, and the viewer gets to watch them inflict unspeakable cruelties on their victims in ugly detail. But we soon come to realize that most of the characters living in the bad parts of Baltimore are trapped there by the simple bad luck of where and when they were born.
He states further:
So while the world of The Wire is populated by individuals who make moral choices for themselves, the actual outcomes they arrive at are in the end sharply bracketed by the twisted institutions that surround them.
So in this sense while he doesn’t use the word, these people are victims, and as such their choices in effect are determined for them. I sympathize with that, because so much of who we become does depend on the circumstances of our birth. But what kind of solutions does this lead one to embrace? We get some indication from the following:
The Tea Party ideology that glorifies individual self-help and points to the dangers of an overweening national government conveniently forgets this [African American] history—or perhaps some of them do remember it, which is why they are so opposed to the Affordable Care Act, many of whose beneficiaries would be black. Even for those not on the libertarian Right, there tends to be a view that the end of legal segregation leveled the playing field, that government efforts like the Great Society’s War on Poverty were a counterproductive failure, and that there is little more that can usefully be done with regard to inner-city social policy.
What The Wire does so effectively is to remind us that while individual ability and talent do matter, and that our character and moral choices matter as well, we are nevertheless very much products of a social environment over which we as individuals have very little influence. The drug trade, single-parent families, unsafe neighborhoods and poor, under-resourced schools are the results less of poor individual choices than of dysfunctional institutions. If we are going to change any of the outcomes on the ground, we cannot rely simply on self-help.
Obviously he is not a big fan of “self-help,” but what exactly does “self-help” mean? Because he doesn’t define it, but in effect denigrates whatever he seems to think it is, it is hard to take his arguments seriously. The enemies of liberty often take to implying or stating categorically that capitalism and free enterprise are at their core selfish, that individualism taken to its extreme is the logical outcome of the marketplace. The problem with this characterization is that it is demonstrably untrue. Truly selfish individuals do not have the ability to exhibit the virtues that underlie the true building of wealth. But this gets us to the conclusion that Fukuyama in fact started with.
Usually when one begins with the presumption of victimization and belittles something called “self-help,” you can pretty much predict he will come down on the side of “strong government action” and “wealth redistribution” as part of the solution:
What these countries (in Latin America) have that America lacks, surprisingly, is not just innovative policy, but a much greater political consensus that some degree of strong government action—and, yes, wealth redistribution—is necessary to undermine the nexus of drugs, poverty and crime. Americans, by contrast, have had to sneak redistribution through the back door by means of artifices like subsidized mortgage lending—a path that was neither efficient nor, as we have seen, safe for the economy as a whole. The country needs to address the problem of the underclass forthrightly and on its own terms.
David Simon, the writer and producer of The Wire put it his way, the show “is a meditation on the death of work and the betrayal of the American working class, it is a deliberate argument that unencumbered capitalism is not a substitute for social policy.”
There we go again; Simon and Fukuyama have some bogeyman they believe in called “unencumbered capitalism,” which I guess has something to do with “self-help.” And it is obvious that neither of these things has any positive bearing on the dysfunctional lives of inner city black Americans, other than to keep them mired in endless generational cycles of such dysfunction.
He states that the welfare reform legislation of the 1990s has done nothing to change the cycle of single-parent families, drugs and crime in inner city America. I wonder what kind of “strong government action” and “wealth redistribution” he thinks could change this. Trillions of dollars spent on welfare and other enormous wealth distribution from the suburbs to the cities certainly didn’t do so in the decades since they began in the 1960s—and welfare income transfers are still huge today, just being done under the disguise of multiple programs and negative-tax payments instead of AFDC.
Fukuyama does not dare to offer any specific solution to this problem, only to complain that market capitalism isn’t enough, even though it hasn’t been tried. Inner city American culture really is heartbreaking. Just the other night in Chicago, 18 or 19 people were shot on a single night! There are no simple answers for generational dysfunction. But without a shadow of a doubt we know that pouring money through a bureaucracy by some policy of supposedly well meaning politicians is not the answer.
Indeed, one must see the government-controlled public schools as a major source of this rot, and inner-city blacks are increasingly seeing school choice—a market-oriented reform—as the solution. And they are right.
We do know that wealth is created through hard work and the application of virtue, a word you don’t hear much from our big government, statist politicians, and our cultural elite. In other words, as I’ve argued here recently, culture is the critical factor in how a people behave. Consider a society or a subset of society in which Plato’s cardinal virtues were ubiquitous:
- Prudence – able to judge between actions with regard to appropriate actions at a given time
- Justice – proper moderation between self-interest and the rights and needs of others
- Temperance or Restraint – practicing self-control, abstention, and moderation
- Fortitude or Courage – forbearance, endurance, and ability to confront fear and uncertainty, or intimidation
Or add to this the fruit of a Christian’s relationship to the Spirit of God:
- But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control.
Or the second half of the Ten Commandments:
- Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long upon the land which the Lord your God is giving you.
- You shall not murder.
- You shall not commit adultery.
- You shall not steal.
- You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
- You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, nor his male servant, nor his female servant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that is your neighbor’s.
Or consider the values of Asian Americans whose children continually excel at academics as well as in their professional lives. These include an expectation of hard work and success, honesty, no excuses, respect for elders, and other virtues that turn into a life that doesn’t need a government handout.
Or take the concept of stigma. Prior to the 1960s there was stigma associated with a woman having a baby out of wedlock; now it’s just another lifestyle “choice,” a choice with terrible effects especially for lower class Americans, be they white or black or brown. Or what about the stigma of what used to be called “being on the dole”? Americans used to understand that getting something for nothing could destroy a person’s character; today, it’s supposedly a measure of others’ morality. Our secular culture elite still believes in the concept of stigma, only now it’s used against those whom they deem politically incorrect, such as people who have the gall to believe marriage is between a man and a woman.
The bottom line is that the sexual revolution and huge wealth transfers that began in the 1960s jettisoned the cultural respect for traditional values and thus helped destroy inner city black culture. No government program or wealth redistribution scheme is going to make any difference, put the black family together, or inculcate the values and virtues that lead to respectable middle class lives. How to put the toothpaste back in the tube, I have no idea. But what I do know is that the values of our secular cultural elites, who despise religion and love the “gritty realism” of shows like The Wire, will do nothing to change the cycle of dysfunction that so frustrates and saddens everyone.