Acton Commentary

Determinism, Dependency, and the Irreducible Person


Sociological determinism informs our public policy. Those with a stake in the maintenance and expansion of government bureaucracies feed upon pathology and find a willing constituency among those who perceive the world in terms of victims and perpetrators. If men are not free, they are not responsible for their misdeeds and ought instead to be treated with pity for falling prey to tragic misfortunes. They are to be healed by those who understand their powerlessness. Such enabling has produced a host of psychotherapeutic terms and treatments attempting to explain every human condition and every degrading act.

As Thomas Sowell has shown, the process of re-allocating responsibility away from the individual and into the hands of society (with the state as its embodiment) has a four-stage pattern:

1. The crisis. A crisis is created through the manufacturing or selective utilization of data, giving rise to social outrage. Intellectuals often perform this function, with the cooperation of the media.

2. The solution. Government intervention is presented as absolutely necessary to solve the crisis.

3. The results. They are to be measured not by evidence of positive change but by the very fact of allocating funds and creating structures to “attend the need.”

4. The response. Evidence will no longer be considered if it points toward the reduction of funds or challenges the idea of government intervention. In fact, if things get worse—and they often do— greater resources are to be demanded, as “we have not yet done enough.”

Liberal historians, social theorists, and political philosophers bolster this narrative. We are told that the system’s raison d’etre is to help the poor but families and bureaucrats are “disempowered and unable to effect lasting change in the macro system.” The problem is that we do not have enough government funding “in a country whose conservative agenda clearly values spending for war preparation over spending for a child’s life and a worker is on the road to burning out.”

Statistical Social Justice

Under his “principle of redress,” Harvard philosopher John Rawls asserts that “undeserved inequalities” must be accounted for by society. As individuals do not decide their genetic endowment, we ought to at least compensate for the unfortunate inequalities of birth and for the social “tyranny of skills.” These ideas of justice and equality have created a market for statistical explanations of disparity attempting to prove the need for state action to correct “social injustice.” Statistical disparities, it is thought, provide irrefutable proof that social structures continue to impede needed change. Under such a vision, equality needs to be imposed by third parties “[wielding] the power to control outcomes, override rules, standards, or the preferences of other people.” Third parties will make sure that we right the wrongs of the pre-birth lottery assigning endowments; if nature does not produce a state of outcome equality, we will. With singular dexterity, the tragic misfortunes and depravities of men are traced all the way back to the human genome or to oppressive social arrangements.

What is proclaimed as collective justice can better be explained by what is termed in political economy public choice theory, ably identified by Nobel-laureate James Buchanan as “politics without romance.” Collective entities do not make decisions; people do, and they have self-interested motives. We also know that, although certain interests are similar for all groups, other interests are antagonistic to those of other groups. The reality of selfishness and the special pleading of particular interest groups ensures the troubling outcome that some of the benefits granted to one group will come at the expense of other groups.

Politicians advance given positions and bureaucrats attempt to retain their livelihoods by enhancing the political desirability of certain public policy options. Members of given groups perceive the possibility of some individual benefit and vote accordingly. Promised benefits to individuals or to a given block may take the form of direct payments (as with the well-known bailouts following the financial crisis of 2007–8), better prospects to be employed, job security, more money for a certain kind of research, or any other tangible benefit.

Politics provide a mirage of benefit for those receiving a transfer and the appearance of minor loss to those being dispossessed of position, property, or wealth. At first glance, the exercise appears harmless. The transfers do not deeply affect the living conditions of those receiving benefit but they give them a sense of comfort that only stimulates the demand for more.

Applied to minorities, the reliance on political markets increases their antagonism toward the mainstream and energizes the experts in their ongoing quest for perpetrators of injustice. Transfers offer a system with elements of rationality and calculation that, when united with moralistic appeals to social justice, are very difficult to counter but deeply detrimental to social harmony. In a society seeking immediate gratification and ready tangible benefit, the politics of self-interest are hard to defeat.

Cosmic Justice Warriors

The history of affirmative action in the United States and around the world is an adequate exemplar of how government policies have been utilized to execute group-based cosmic justice. Through “goals and timetables,” enforced “representation” to ameliorate “disparate impact,” quotas, “race-norming,” and other devices, affirmative action was transformed into a numbers game enforcing collectivized justice and attempting to subvert structural oppression. In the vision of cosmic justice, individuals are conceived as tokens of a particular group and individual benefit is derived from group identity without the slightest need to establish that they, as individuals, have been discriminated against.

Data tending to refute a causal link between genetic or social determinism and outcome are dismissed by appeals to the need to redress the evil effects of structural oppression. What has been termed the residual fallacy is today accepted as dogma. If statistical disparity remains after certain non-discriminatory elements are accounted for (or ‘controlled’) it is safe to attribute the gap to a ‘soft’ variable such as social discrimination or injustice. It is considered mean-spirited and unscientific to associate the persistence of a gap to any cultural difference, or worse, to individual moral causal variables.

Most of the determinism in our policy discussions is of the soft kind. It expresses itself as a call to understand the “complexity” of a given situation and to take into account discrimination. It is certainly true that reality is more complex than any theory can explain or any empirical analysis can demonstrate. This truism, however, is used selectively to reject a priori any conclusion at odds with a given accepted vision. By labeling a situation as complex, explanations at odds with determinism (whether biological or social) can be rejected as simplistic. Those adopting ‘simplistic’ solutions can be immediately dismissed without an empirical demonstration of the falsity of their position.

The worst feature of such deterministic explanations is that they objectify blacks. Blacks become static elements that react as chemicals do in the presence of certain agents. As George Gilder puts it, “Slavery, discrimination, and deprivation, it was said, have so abused the black psyche that all sorts of new ministra­tions and therapies are needed to redeem it; racism and unemployment still inflict such liabilities that vast new programs of public employment and affirmative action are required to overcome them.” The reasonable inference from this premise, Gilder concludes, is “that even though blacks are not genetically inferior, science proves them to be so damaged by racism and poverty that they are inferior now.

Often, the reaction to characterizing racism as only a factor rather than the causal factor in blacks’ lives is indignation, as if the suggestion erases racism completely. Scholarship has become an ideological battleground where activism trumps open discussion and where every problem is attributed to the complex apparatus of white supremacy.

Dependency Theory Debunked

In The End of History and the Last Man, Francis Fukuyama tells of the growth of Marxism as an economic system in the Third World out of the apparent failures of capitalism to produce sustainable economic growth. Abject poverty in the world’s underdeveloped countries provided socialism with new life and permitted the leaders of leftist movements to continue to blame colonialism, neo-colonialism, and corporatism for the economic disaster. Dependency theory appeared as an attempt by the left to blame the West for the failures of collectivism. The poverty of the Third World is the direct result of the wealth of the West in a zero-sum game. The global capitalist system keeps Third World countries in a steady state of dependency. As the West controls the rules of the economic game, it maintains other countries in “perpetual backwardness.”

Dependency theory was an abject failure for two reasons. First, it misdiagnosed the reasons for the economic failures of Latin America. In reality, Latin America suffered from a pre-capitalist, feudal, and statist system akin to the one out of which capitalism first arose. These were societies committed to a status quo, favoring a landholding class and stifling economic dynamism. Second, it connected the Third World to another bloc, the Soviet one, with its stagnant and ineffective socialist economy.

A similar dependency theory exists among radicals interpreting black reality. Domestic racialist dependency theory argues that structural racism explains the economic disadvantages of blacks. The success of some is either an exception or a ploy, a tactic of the system to allow a few to lose their identity in the mainstream. The options available to blacks in a structure dominated by white privilege never provide real escape from subordination. Every institution in American society and every white person are, by definition, racist. For that reason, even “protectionist” policies such as affirmative action, although largely supported, remain a part of the structure of a system that dominates blacks.

The success of some developing countries in Latin America and Southeast Asia has proven the weaknesses of dependency theory in the international realm. Dependency theory cannot account for why initially far poorer countries such as South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong and recently even Vietnam have done so much better with fewer resources than Latin America. Likewise, the improvement of the economic and social lot of black Americans within the mainstream has proven the decadence of racialist domestic dependency theory. The way we react to past and present discrimination is also as important as discrimination itself. The success of many ethnic groups in spite of heavy oppression demolishes the assumptions of internal colonialism and dependency theory. Many such groups have shown that societal acceptance can come in the wake of a group’s internal transformation.

Racialism and Truth

Although some dependency theories attempt to present an alternative between individualism and structuralism, they do not escape the idea of race as the basic reality of human persons or systems. A worldview characterized by mutually exclusive societies—white America on one side and black America on the other—is at the heart of racialist essentialism. As Ryan T. Anderson and Christopher Tollefsen argue, one of the primary reasons for the failure of varied modern secular philosophies is their inadequate theories of personal identity, and racialist essentialism fails precisely in this way. The identity politics of racialism ends up narrowing the definition of blackness to a certain immovable criterion satisfying whoever creates it. The abuse absorbed by black conservatives is an example of the alienating and divisive effects of the theory of racialist essentialism.

Modern, secularist understandings of law attempt to separate law and moral order from God, thus making natural law humanly mutable. Racialists want to change the system so that they can impose the ‘truth’ of what they perceive as authentically black. Skeptics, on the other hand, also raise the issue of the uncertainty of the whole enterprise of knowing. They doubt the human capacity to attain knowledge of a reality that is independent of us.

The human mind, however, is not first in the causal order, or in the ultimate order of being. We must side with Russell Hittinger (citing Karl Barth) when he states that “Ethics is a task of the Doctrine of God.” The Enlightenment’s state-of-nature scenarios make man and his culture the ultimate reality with ontological independence; or as Hittinger puts it in his critique of this view, “The creator God exists, perhaps, but he does not govern.” What we must assert to be irreducible is the moral order and its first principles, at the heart of which is the ontological reality of the human person qua person. This is the way out of the determinist dead-end.

Ismael Hernandez is the founder and president of the Freedom and Virtue Institute in Ft. Myers, Florida. This commentary is excerpted from his forthcoming book, Not Tragically Colored: Freedom, Personhood, and the Renewal of Black America.