KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAQuick thought on Barney Frank’s exit interview on PBS’s Newshour last week. When asked why he wanted to join Congress in the first place, Frank responded that he wanted to make the U.S. “a fairer country…in the sense of people not going hungry and being deprived through no fault of their own, or even it was their fault, but not letting people sink to that level of misery.”

To me, outgoing Representative Frank makes a pretty basic point about how much we all want to take care of each other. Even if we think that it’s a particular individual’s “fault” that she hasn’t succeeded in life, is our societal response to just let her suffer as a consequence? I don’t think so, and instead believe that we want to ensure that everyone has some basic level of subsistence. By doing so, we can help others have a second chance at success, and more fundamentally, to prevent unnecessary “misery.”

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4147238714_facaaa770c_oAnother interesting early idea that’s popped up in thinking about free will and politics is our differing views on public benefit programs for children and for adults. Many people are in favor in investing in early education and social/nutritional assistance for low-income children, often in the pursuit of ‘equal opportunity.’ Fewer, on either side of the aisle, are in favor of giving low/no-income adults the unconditional nutritional/educational/social assistance many need to survive and thrive.

A clear manifestation of this was President Clinton’s “welfare-to-work” reforms that changed the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program – which gave states generous matching funds – with the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families – which contained stricter time limits and work requirements. This bill, appropriately enough, was entitled the “Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act.”

It’s politically unpalatable to argue that adults don’t need to take “personal responsibility” for their lives, but this approach conveniently ignores the social, historical, and contextual determinants of any given individual’s income level and baseline wealth. Yet this is a fight that even the most progressive hesitate to take up. For instance, in a recent report on how welfare reform’s work requirements affects on youth, authors Lisa Dodson and Randy Albelda poignantly document how low-wage jobs fail to provide the stability needed for prosperous families and given few opportunities for upward advancement. From this argument, however, they don’t conclude that the work requirement should be rolled back.

“The alternative we seek is not non-employment for low-income parents supplemented by government support,” they write, “although for some families there may be times when that is the only or best solution.” Instead, the authors insist that the solution lies in better paying jobs with better benefits.

Although the ethos of ‘bootstrapping’ and ‘making oneself’ can be seen as central to being ‘American,’ I think that the sentiment of ‘helping one’s neighbor’ and ‘taking care of the less fortunate’ also lives strong. If we were willing to concede that individuals have significant constraints on their ability to “create themselves,” then maybe we would be more generous in our social policy, both towards children and adults.

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1721673359_d0e85c4a71_oIn my preliminary exploration of the connection between free will, personal responsibility and politics, one of the clearest examples that emerges deals with public benefits. Roughly put, it seems that the more we believe that individual behavior is constrained, shaped and determined by historical and social structures, the more we would invest in ensuring that environments are maximally conducive to human flourishing. If, on the other hand, we felt that individual achievement was mostly a result of personal talent and hard work, we might feel less concerned about the class and context into which individuals are born.

What I say in a clunky way, Heather MacDonald says much more eloquently in a recent City Journal essay on welfare reform:

“The Left’s essential strategy when it comes to poverty is to assess need and desert only in the present moment. If someone shows up at a welfare office saying: ‘I have no means of support for myself and my children,’ the proper role of the government bureaucrat is to ask: “How big a check do you require?” rather than: ‘What did you do to put yourself into this situation?'”

Although MacDonald is clearly saying the Left is wrongheaded about public benefits, her words bring to my mind an interesting correlate with criminal justice. For instance, in a world in which we take our limitations on freedom seriously, when someone commits a crime, the primary question we might ask ourselves is how to rehabilitate the person, as opposed to how to “get even.” We may still be interested in what led the person to commit the crime, but only insofar as we could modify situations to make that crime less likely in the future.

Using a similar “constrained freedom” approach in the case of an individual seeking public benefits, I submit that we might, as MacDonald wants to caricature, focus more on how a person could be helped to have a brighter future than on giving them their “just desert” for (what MacDonald takes to be) their poor personal decisions. In general, I think that less of a focus on the individual as an isolated, all-powerful, self-creation would lead us to concern ourselves primarily with forward-looking policies to both help that individual and others avoid harm and maximize well-being.

(As a side note, it’s interesting to see that MacDonald wants us to expand our “present moment” focus only to past choices of that individual seeking support, as opposed to the generational influences on the person’s income and status, or the neighborhood and other environmental forces that shaped that person’s life. I imagine taking too broad a perspective would distract us too much from ‘personal’ responsibility.)

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3943411823_1358af45d7_oFor my first post I am thrilled to highlight commentary on Free Will from none other than the polarizing, shoot-from-the-hip political and social commentator Rush Limbaugh. On December 19, Rush received a call (transcript here) from a woman named Heather who was discussing the role of mental illness in explaining individual behavior. This was in relation to the recent horrific shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, and she was advocating for a greater attention to mental health issues, in particular to the need for both treatment and medication to be available to those in need.

Rush’s primary response was to disdainfully cite the increasing prevalence of neurological explanations for human behavior. He pointed to the proliferation of discoveries in medical science that suggest that “we really don’t have minds of our own, that we are prisoners of our own brain chemistry.” Under this view, he continues, we “really have no self-control. We have no force of will.” Rush laments that “this notion that there is no free will is a rising way for people to explain away their faults. Science is providing it, and the Democrat[ic] Party is right there advocating it.

Rush’s ultimate point, it seems, it that life is difficult for a variety of people, himself included, and some react more constructively than others. The way we respond to our environment is up to “us,” and our brain chemistry is not “an excuse” for bad behavior.

As someone who’s just delving into how the “free will” discourse is used politically and socially, I’m first and foremost excited that Rush is citing the scientific studies that are illustrating the neurological determinants of behavior. Although Rush doesn’t attempt to refute these studies or tell us what we are other than our brain chemicals, I think it’s safe to say that some belief in a human ‘soul’ or ‘I’ – independent of neurotransmitters – is at root. Also, it seems that Rush seems unwilling to entertain the idea that we can exert self-control and force of will, even if that ultimately is only within the confines of the prison which is our own brain.

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