Making good choices improves odds of a good life

J. Martin Rochester, Curators’ Distinguished Teaching Professor of Political Science Emeritus at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, is the author of 10 books on international and American politics.

By Marty Rochester

There is a raging debate today between liberals and conservatives, even though few people can really identify what each camp stands for.  

Much of the distinction traditionally revolves around the view one has of Big Government, although even here the differences are not entirely clear. E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post perhaps best defined the two ideologies when he said, “Liberals want the government to put its hands in people’s pockets but keep it out of their pants. Conservatives want the government’s hand out of people’s pockets and in their pants.”

Today, especially, it seems almost everyone supports a bigger government, oblivious to an exploding national debt, albeit with different spending priorities: liberals pushing for greater welfare spending, and conservatives greater spending on security whether domestic (law and order) or international (defense). 

The only exception may be so-called libertarians, who favor less government across the board. Still, most libertarians, such as Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., seem more conservative than liberal and only add to the confusion over terminology.

To me, the main distinction between the two schools is over what the famous libertarian Milton Friedman called “the freedom to choose.” Conservatives today stress the latter value;  that is, virtually all of us have the potential to succeed in America through some combination of hard work and intelligence, although luck must be added to the equation as well. Clearly, some have it far easier than others. Some are born more fortunate than others, who may be disabled or otherwise start life with more than one strike against them. That said, for most of us, we are largely a product of the hundreds of choices we make in the course of our lives. 

In other words, if one exercises personal responsibility in making good choices, one’s chances of success are reasonably high. One need only look at the myriad Horatio Alger stories throughout American history, including dirt-poor Jewish, Asian  and other immigrants – whites as well as people of color – who realized their fondest dreams in coming to America. 

Granted, some folks came in shackles, but even their families often managed to rise above their poverty through dint of individual effort. There is no better example than Ben Carson, secretary of Housing and Urban Development, a descendant of slaves and son of an illiterate mother whose insistence that he learn to read led to his becoming chief of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.  Yes, it can be done.  

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If you prefer hard data to anecdotal evidence, see the empirical research done by scholars at both the Brookings Institution and the American Enterprise Institute who found that if one does four relatively simple things — get a high school diploma, get a full-time job, get married and wait until marriage before having children — you have an 80% probability of escaping poverty. 

Admittedly, most of us want to do more than merely escape poverty, but at least it is a start, and the above fourfold strategy arguably offers a better recipe for success than what the social justice warriors have in mind. 

As Amity Shlaes writes in her new book “Great Society: A New History,” the War on Poverty initiated by President Lyndon B. Johnson has been a failure, partly because it encouraged some pathological behavior inside and outside the family. We did not “cure poverty” as LBJ had envisioned. Indeed, the poverty rate today is roughly what it was in 1967 despite spending more than $22 trillion on the effort since the 1960s; adjusted for inflation, this is three times the cost of all U.S. wars fought in our history. 

Regarding the role of choices, I think of my own life. For sure, I have been blessed in many respects. My parents were solidly middle class, my father a pharmacist and my mother a schoolteacher (although their parents arrived on our shores with very little). More importantly, Mom and Dad were wonderful, loving role models, something that I think any of us can aspire to apart from our material trappings. 

I still had lots of choices to make, starting with whether to work hard or not at my earliest schooling. Thankfully, spurred by my twin brother, I was very studious, leading eventually to enrollment in graduate school, choosing to pursue a career in academia rather than the practice of law. I was lucky to have some great teachers and mentors along the way, although I also made my own luck in the numerous decisions I reached as to the book projects and other endeavors I attempted that led to the accomplishments I managed to accumulate over the years. 

I should add that I was very lucky in marrying the perfect wife. Or was it a wise decision, along with dozens of other such daily decisions I have had to make since, about child-rearing and other issues, that accounts for our recently celebrating our 50th anniversary together?  

Ask yourself whether whatever success (or lack thereof) you have achieved is a function of privilege (or injustice). Or perhaps it is mostly a result of choices you have made and for which you bear responsibility. 

Again, I have seen first-hand how some people start with a poor hand to play. For three years, I served as a big brother to an inner city youth named Jahmall, whom I tried to shepherd through high school, arrange employment for and teach good values – all to no avail. He carried too much baggage, as he was one of eight children abandoned by his drug-addicted mother at birth. 

I was left asking the question: Even if Jahmall could be forgiven for his failure to take advantage of my help, what social justice was owed his mother for her horrendous behavior?

What is lacking today in our national conversation is a sense of balance in rewarding or punishing people for the choices they make. For example, take the debate over mass incarceration. Conservatives point out that a Bureau of Justice Statistics report from 2015 found 75% of all individuals released from prison are rearrested within the next five years, thus calling into question the wisdom of emptying prisons. Liberals say this is mainly a result of the mental illness and substance abuse that contributed to their criminal behavior to begin with. 

It is reasonable to give nonviolent prisoners a second chance and to provide programs to facilitate their return to society, but it is not reasonable to give them third, fourth and fifth chances as some are wont to do today. At some point, people need to stop screwing up or face the consequences. 

Nothing I have said here should be taken as negating the importance of tikkun olam and our obligation as Jews to repair the world and help the needy.  

We do a disservice to that cause, though, when we devalue personal responsibility and inflate the importance of the collective over individual free will.