On Rules in Society

Self-control – imposing rules on one’s self – gradually leads to an awareness that we cohabit in this world with other people.

(photo: manhattan-institute.org)

On a recent Saturday morning, taking the Metro into Washington, I sat opposite a mother with her little boy. The boy was about four or five, i.e., perhaps not yet able to read. But he wore a denim jacket, on the back of which was proudly emblazoned: “I Don’t Need No Rules.”

It took great restraint not to tell him (and his mother): “Yes, you do. A grammar teacher wouldn’t hurt, either.”

We all need rules. We could not live in society without them.

What bothered me was the message the lad was sporting, most likely unconsciously because—as I said—I didn’t think he could read yet. But messages acquired by osmosis are perhaps even more toxic.

The message bothered me because it was the diametrical opposite of the message of the book I was reading (and have already introduced): Howard Husock’s Who Killed Civil Society? Husock’s main thesis (he has a lot of sub-theses) is that we need to focus less on government-sponsored reformative social programs (i.e., programs to fix problems) and more on civil society-driven formative programs (i.e., programs that prevent problems by highlighting and promoting moral norms).

As I previously noted, this book is addressed to social policy practitioners, not social ethicists or theologians. That said, I believe it could foster a fruitful discussion, because theologians and ethicists have had some experience with formation, values and norms.

Husock is not “poor-shaming” people. He points out that formative social programs touch those who “are not inherently deficient or immoral, they have simply not been exposed to constructive norms. Instead, they have been influenced by dysfunctional norms” (p. 134).

The author wants to inculcate “bourgeois” norms, i.e., norms essential to economic success. They include: self-control; getting outside yourself; and responsibility.

Self-control begins with impulse control: every desire does not deserve fulfillment, and there will be times one has to say “no” to one’s self. Husock’s book is primarily a history of social work, moving from charitable work in the 1800s that sought to promote norms (think Hull House or Charles Brace’s 19th century homes for Manhattan newsboys) to the gradual federalization of social work in the 1900s (with its apogee in the “Great Society” and afterward), while also offering the example of Geoffrey Canada’s “Harlem Children’s Zone” as one contemporary example of trying to recover that earlier model. Brace’s self-control was to teaching newsboys (often abandoned children trying to survive by hawking the yellow press) to get ahead by saving what they earned rather than the quick fix of gambling. Canada’s self-control is overcoming a community message that deems saving rather than spending on one’s self to be what a fool does.

Self-control – imposing rules on one’s self – gradually leads to an awareness that I cohabit in this world with other people. Those other people are of various kinds: good, bad or something of both. Learning whom to “hang” with, finding positive models in my environment, is essential to getting out of one’s self. Jane Addams and Hull House tried to do that by modeling what assimilation to American society meant, not because she was a WASP cultural imperialist (which in some ways she was) but because success meant being able to communicate with others outside one’s own ghetto. Canada, himself a minority raised in an impoverished, mother-headed household, learned other models from (a) a mother who started some college and wanted more for her boys; (b) a scholarship that got him to Bowdoin College, where the fact that no police came through campus during his four years there at first seemed anomalous to him; and (c) when later, as a social worker in poorer areas of south Boston, he encountered working class Irish and Italian kids whose mentalities he found were sometimes not that different from his Harlem peers.

Recognizing one is not a normless monad in the world, i.e., overcoming overgrown individualism and recognizing one must get outside one’s self, leads to another essential character quality: responsibility.

Responsibility first and foremost starts with one’s self, but since no man is an island, it also reaches into one’s environment. Jane Addams sought to show urban immigrant women that indifference to the trash outside my door might work in rural Europe, but was a guarantee of disease and vermin in densely populated Chicago. According to Husock, Canada began reclaiming Harlem one block at a time. The first building he worked in supposedly had lots of vacant apartments where drug pushers did deals. Working with a government program to get locks on those doors was the first step to changing the environment. Painting over the graffiti (rather than writing monographs about its “artistic” worth) was another. It creates norms. As the author observed: if a kid lives with trash around him, he’s not going to walk 30 feet to put his litter in a trash can, because he doesn’t want to “stick out.” The question is making the environment from which a kid doesn’t want to “stick out” safe, clean and normative. Put a lock on the door. Fix the broken window. Zero tolerance for fare evaders. It’s like old Catholic formation: if you tolerate venial sin here and there, sooner or later those sins can lead to mortal ones.

What I found refreshing about this book was Husock doesn’t just come up with some economic conservative “oh, the invisible hand of the market will fix everything” solution. Throughout the book, he realizes that charities cannot take over everything the government does, that even an overgrown bureaucracy isn’t going away soon, and that the way our economy functions requires some social safety net for those who, despite their efforts, find themselves hung out economically to dry.

But he also recognizes that government cannot do everything, that it especially cannot teach and promote norms, and that we’re going to set ourselves up for failure if social policy is primarily reformative rather than formative.

The dissolution of norms in society and its consequences is fast becoming a social disaster not just for one race or ethnic group, but increasingly for a broader swath of working class Americans. J.D. Vance put his finger on this phenomenon in his Hillbilly Elegy. There are lots of other issues Husock treats in this book worth discussing (e.g., the “bourgeois bohemians” of our chattering and governing classes, who urge the poor onto the barricades of antinomianism while being pretty traditional about those values themselves), but I leave that to others. Husock wants to revive our national tradition, so evident to Tocqueville, of American civil society as the agent of social cohesion, socialization and help. It’s a social conversation we need to have if we are to get beyond the mutually fruitless Scylla of “a tax cut will fix everything” on the one hand and the Charybdis of “Medicaid-Medicare-college-green cars-and abortions for all” on the other.