Every few months the gentlemen of the press discover a new threat to humanity that requires decisive government action. Not so long ago the United States Senate, alarmed by reports of a comet striking the planet Jupiter, actually took up the question of protecting the earth against a similar calamity. Conservatives smile, but in the Reagan years, the President’s Hollywood imagination was inflamed by a vision of world peace secured by lasers and missiles, like so many angelic swords barring the Soviets from our American Eden.
Usually, however, the crises are more down-to-earth. For several years the lamentations of the press have been directed toward the problem of “children having children”—as if this were something new in the world, when the only thing new is the fact that Americans never grow up.
More recently the declared crisis is children killing children, but since the children killing children tend to be the children of children, it is perhaps all one problem. Although American intellectuals and their journalist camp-followers have failed to mitigate, much less solve, virtually every social problem of the 20th century, their failure does not prevent them from proposing new remedies that are inevitably worse than the disease. And so we hear the familiar refrain: the outbreak of children killing each other will be solved—as the general crime problem will be solved—only when the underlying social pathology of poverty is eliminated. This means more welfare, better public housing, make-work jobs, midnight basketball games, and an educational system dumbed down so far that a “youth” with a 75 IQ can graduate from high school and teach at MIT.
I stress this last point, because it is apparent from the newspaper accounts that many of the homicidal adolescents are incorrigibly stupid. Last October in Chicago two teenagers in a housing project asked a five-year-old to steal for them, and when he refused, they dropped him out of a 14th-story window, despite the best efforts of the boy’s older brother, who immediately informed the police. Apparently no one ever told them that it is a big mistake to kill someone in the presence of the victim’s brother. No educational program could teach these kids, not right from wrong, certainly, for they will never know that, but the simple facts of survival, like not to use the car phone in a vehicle you have stolen, which is what the murderers of Michael Jordan’s father did. Even North Carolina schools cannot be that bad.
To remedy millennia of discrimination will obviously require such long-term programs as cannot benefit any children already born. We hear, therefore, from liberals and conservatives alike, that a more direct crackdown on crime must be undertaken. Depending on their point of view—or who is paying them—the experts recommend more police, more prisons and stiffer sentences, “federalization” of crime control, and disarming the suburbs. (No one even dreams of disarming the projects.) When it is pointed out that none of these methods has ever made more than a marginal impact on crime rates over the long term, the experts shrug their shoulders and say in almost so many words: “Couldn’t hoit.”
Before spending even a moment “thinking about crime,” the average American—by which I mean people who are neither criminals nor criminologists—must dispel a fundamental illusion from his mind. In matters of human life, of good and evil, there is no science that specializes in the knowledge of evil and no class of experts that can solve human problems. The worst delusion of the 20th century is that there is some science of society—sociology, psychology, political science, criminology—that can come up with the social equivalent of a cure for the common cold. Count, if you like, the number of homicides committed in Chicago, correlate these numbers with statistics on employment, inflation, mean temperature, expenditure on education, etc., and you still come up with nothing. Oh, there is a superstitious thrill in reciting gibberish that gives us the illusion of power—that is what magic is all about—but none of these statistical mantras brings us any closer to the nature of good or the problem of evil.
To light our way through the dark passageways of the human heart, we have only the lamp of experience to guide us. The only sciences that can help us are not the new-fangled disciplines modeled on the false analogy of the natural sciences (an error that Aristotle warned against), but the very ancient sciences of moral philosophy and theology, and if any man claims an expert status in matters of crime because of his degree in voodoo or sociology, his every word should be disregarded. Bar graphs and bell curves are about as useful as pins in dolls, and their effectiveness depends entirely on the credulity of the victims.
This, by the way, is the great problem of the neoconservatives, who every year seem to have a new theory about American society and a new set of numbers to support their schemes. One cannot rightly blame them for their stupidity; it is unfair to expect sociologists to understand evil. That is a job for a priest or a poet. The characters of the so-called social so-called scientists have been formed on the corrosive superstition of statistical morality, the same superstition that led earlier generations of social engineers to forge the engines of destruction that are grinding the little loyalties of everyday life into abrasive powder.
Of course, they are not alone. We Americans love to think there are scientific remedies for the fact that we are human, that we can immunize ourselves against the moral diseases under which our ancestors labored. The entire welfare state apparatus is like a moral SDI designed to shield us from the consequences of folly and the danger of real life.
In the godless, cultureless, lawless, rootless world that is a gift of “the science of society,” we can call on neither priest nor poet in our hour of need. We do, however, as human beings possess some elementary principles of reason, and as Americans we should have seen enough to know that in a very real sense the liberals are right. We cannot begin to address the problem of crime, much less of juvenile homicide, without first doing something about the conditions that make it possible.
First, let us ask the most obvious question. Boys will be boys, so they say, and men men; since the male human animal is prone to violence and laziness, is it not strange that all societies are not as crime-ridden as ours? America, in particular, was not so long ago a very peaceful society, and even if we say that our high rate of violent crime is a function of the proportion of young black males in our society, we have still not said anything to the purpose. Young black males have been living in America since the 17th century, but it is only in recent years that they have been killing each other off.
Elsewhere in this issue, Professor Steven Goldberg suggests, somewhat disingenuously I hope, that we are dealing with the residue of slavery, but he does not explain why it is that the longer black males are out of slavery, the more violent, the more idle, the more criminal they become. We can speculate all we like on the persistence of tribal folkways across the generations or on genetically controlled behavioral patterns, but we know that the problem of black violent crime is a recent phenomenon. Most ordinary Americans realize that much of the explanation lies with the welfare state, which includes family assistance programs, public housing, Food Stamps, minimum wage laws, the juvenile justice system, and public education, and although the experts are now calling for “welfare reform” and even retrenchment, and some of them are even blaming illegitimacy on AFDC, they refuse to address the moral facts of American welfare.
Consider the typical example of a 15-year-old Chicago gangster, reared by a mother on welfare, sent to schools where even if the teachers tried to teach, he could learn little by reason of his low intelligence and disordered family life. He can never hold a real job, first because he is stupid—nature saw to that—second, because he is lazy and shiftless—his mother and the schools have done their job all too well—and third, because he knows he does not in fact have to work. He can always live either free or at low cost in the sort of project he grew up in. These projects, built by the taxpayers and dominated by criminal gangs, have formed his character and taught him that if he cannot get enough of what he wants from welfare, he can always steal or deal. By the time he kills his first victim, the time for reform has long since past, and the only profitable thing that can be done with him is to put him out of his and our misery.
Let us imagine the same youth 100 or even 50 years ago. The chances are he had a father, because there was no government program discouraging fatherhood. Father worked, because the law of the land, for black and for white, was the solemn principle Father Abraham pronounced as the solution to the plight of newly freed slaves: “Root, hog, or die.” Father might drink too much occasionally or smoke a little reefer, but if his bad habits got in the way of his work, he was out of a job and would not be able to feed himself, much less a family, and if he was sufficiently lazy, stupid, and dishonest, he might not succeed in passing on his bad character traits to future generations.
The family did not live in a project, because there were none. They had to find their own house or apartment or room, but in paying rent and taking care of themselves, the family made what we call a home. If father or son was inclined toward crime, he had the book thrown at him, a very heavy book, and before the establishment of juvenile justice systems, a teenage boy would have to take his punishment “like a man.” Besides, dad, after working a 50- or 60-hour week, was probably too tired to hang out with the boys and get into trouble. Son, who probably started to fail in school by the fifth or sixth grade, was also working a full week, and all those boyish high spirits, which today would incline him to rape and murder, were vented in work. “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop,” as my high school Latin teacher used to say, and if a child cannot learn Latin, then he had better learn a trade, as an apprentice, or, if he is incapable of learning a skilled trade, then let him begin his career of lifting and fetching as early as is practicable.
Leisure is, as Josef Pieper said in the title of his beautiful book, “the basis of culture,” but culture in this sense is not a free or general good. Most Americans, not just the criminal classes, have far too much free time on their hands. American popular entertainment bears witness to the great mistake we have made as a people, in equalizing economic circumstances for the different social classes. Most of us, if we have time on our hands, turn to football or pornography. Work is better. Vergil, pondering this problem in his Georgics, concluded that Jupiter himself had willed that man’s work be hard. The god had sharpened men’s wits with worry and did not tolerate lethargy: “Labor omnia vincit improbus et duris urgens in rebus egestas.”
Chesterton and his friends used to argue that what we call crime is simply the vices of the lower classes, and to some extent that observation still holds. Obviously rape, murder, and assault are terrible deeds, whoever commits them, but the furor over crack—as opposed to regular cocaine or prescription tranquilizers—is one more sign that America is a class-based country. Our society is plagued by genuinely evil people, and the “community” undoubtedly has a disproportionate share of them. On the other hand, I am not especially impressed by the morality of white middle-class businessmen. They marry, it is true, but so many of them divorce their wives in order to pick up a sex kitten or trophy wife. They do not rob openly, but so much of what is manufactured in this country—automobiles, appliances, food products—is unreliable junk that no honorable man would make, much less sell.
As Eugene O’Neill’s Emperor Jones observed, when you steals small, they puts you in jail, but when you steals big, they puts you in the hall of fame, when you croaks. That, you might say, is the American way, the American morality, but the national concern with crime is not directed toward the big stealers; it is limited to the little street criminals who live by the code of Wall Street—only with more direct methods. Once upon a time they would have gone to church and received the rudiments of a moral education. Today, the American upper class has more or less succeeded in destroying or corrupting the “opiate of the masses,” and if there is no institution—much less an exemplary upper class—that can give such simple people the gift of a higher ethical sense, at least we can give them the lower and pagan gift that so often must do duty for morality: I mean labor, sweat, exhaustion.
Criminal behavior is a lower-class luxury paid for by taxes collected from the working classes. If we do not like the form this luxury takes, we have the privilege of refusing to subsidize it, but if we persist in electing Presidents and Congresses who continue to expand the scope of the welfare state, we have no right to complain. If you do not like crime, do not pay for it. In simple terms, this would require: demolition of all public housing (forget the buy-back schemes; they are simply another expensive welfare program); the rapid end of all forms of wealth-transfer, including Food Stamps, AFDC, etc.; the disestablishment of public education and the repeal of all mandatory school attendance laws.
Schooling is not a right or even a privilege. It is the duty of parents to rear their children, and if ignorant parents cannot give their offspring a “good education,” it is hard to say who loses. What good have advanced degrees done the faculties of Harvard and Yale? Has education taught them to lead better lives, be faithful to their wives, fulfill their duties as teachers, or even to be honest scholars? Fraud and plagiarism constitute the M.O. of American higher education, of the faculty as well as the students. Better illiteracy than a chair in poli sci or literary theory.
But what about the children? A few years ago, I was having breakfast with a prominent and very bright neoliberal, and when I argued for the abolition of welfare, he asked: “What would you do with crack babies?” My answer was a rabbinical question: “What would you do? What can anyone do?” But there are a great many babies being brought up on AFDC payments. What do we do with them? Neoconservatives are fond of workfare, but why is it their business how parents spend their time or rear their children? The whole point is to let people take care of themselves. Workfare implies a rejection of the family and is a studied insult to the poor.
Some children on welfare do have mothers who can work and put the baby to live with grandparents; others may find husbands, once the economic disincentives to marriage are taken away. And for those children whose mothers are drug addicts or prostitutes, let them be given up for adoption or put into an orphanage—if the mother agrees. In no case should such women be “enabled” to rear up another generation of gangsters.
In the frightening case of “Yummie” Sandifer, an 11-year-old murderer whose own gang killed him to avoid trouble (another brilliant move, since the worst that Yummie could testify to could not have attracted so much attention as this killing), the boy’s drug-addict mother had given him to the grandmother to rear, but granny, far from being a kindly old lady in a shawl reading her Bible, kept a house of ill repute. Even Oliver Twist’s workhouse (or Fagin’s gang, for that matter) must be preferable to such a life.
“Root, hog, or die.” Some of the men, as many white as black, undoubtedly will, but death by gunfire or a drug overdose is hardly preferable to death by starvation. Those who want work will find it, so long as there is no minimum wage, and if they must work 60 or 70 hours a week in order to earn subsistence, so much the better, if the alternative is a life of vice and crime. It is Adam’s curse on all his descendants, including Cain.
Some of the neoconservative sociologists and their ghostwriters are coming round to arguing for welfare reform and even for the abolition of certain programs. That is all well and good, but it is too little too late. So long as there are public schools, housing projects, minimum wage laws, affirmative action requirements, and a war on drugs, there is no tinkering that can really help. The only cure for idleness is work, and the only cure for the pathologies of urban poverty is to be found in rural poverty, and it is no accident that many urban black families are sending their children and grandchildren to their relatives in the South. When the great crunch comes, this trickle of emigrants will become a mass exodus. No one who can plant turnips, hoe beans, or poach deer will starve in the rural South.
A hundred years ago Illinois Republicans, looking for cheap domestic labor and a source of votes, imported trainloads of Southern blacks into Chicago. The lives and manners that had been formed on country life were inevitably distorted and corrupted in the city, where the networks of kin and neighborhood were broken down. Their descendants have been addicted to a far more poisonous drug than heroin or cocaine, and that is the moral servitude that comes from a life lived in dependency on strangers. All the social policies since the New Deal have been inspired, in some measure, by the conviction that such problems—including the problem of Southern white poverty, the problem of juvenile delinquency, the problem of unassimilated immigrants—all can and must be solved by preventative programs such as civics education, Head Start, Social Security, or child protection laws. But these programs turn out to be, if not smoke and mirrors, then lasers and missiles.
Life hurts, reality hurts, and if we try to prevent crime or avoid pain, we succeed only in making ourselves less human, less capable of living. The tragedy of the welfare state is that it infects us all. The lowest classes are becoming indolent, vicious, and criminal, while the rest of us have become soft, irresponsible, and luxurious. So long as we refuse to accept responsibility for ourselves and our families—so long as we vote for Social Security and the vast apparatus of middle class welfare—we are morally incapable of dismantling that part of the welfare state that is corrupting the lower classes. Perhaps, as our own lives become so frail and insubstantial, so dependent on the state for support and protection, we are even beginning to envy the life of lower-class gangsters. In that case, instead of “doing something” about crime, we should sit back and enjoy the evening news like the indolent and effete spectators at gladiatorial games. If popular films are any indication, the comfortable classes have developed a taste for blood, and instead of dismantling the welfare state, we should insist upon front row seats that would give us all value for our money.