David L. Bahnsen’s counternarrative (p. xx) of both the 2008 financial housing crisis and the 2016 populist political upheaval links both to a single source: a crisis of responsibility, a lack of which infects not just economics and politics but the entire culture. His nearly unprecedented thesis identifies culprits almost everywhere, and not just, as is widely believed, in the perches of elitism increasingly criticized by their alleged victims at the social margins. Bahnsen is an equal opportunity offender (“this book has offered no immunity to anyone,” 156), and his brisk 170-pages cover surprisingly wide ground in indicting nearly every classification in our society for the irresponsibility that contributes to our present ills.
Although an unapologetic sociopolitical conservative, Bahnsen’s critique targets fellow conservatives just as much as Leftists — and perhaps more energetically, since of the two viewpoints, personal responsibility has been a guiding tenet of conservatism … until lately. The conservatives who blame Wall Street, Washington, NAFTA, China, Mexico and the media are more blameworthy than the Leftists who blame individual liberty, the traditional family and church, small government, military interventionism, private education, and free markets (pp. 15–29). Leftists are suckled on blame-shifting. Conservatives should know better.
Playing the Victim Card
Though a Barron’s- and Forbes-recognized investment executive knowledgeable in both economics and politics, his is a cultural (i.e., spiritual and moral) critique. Economics, like politics, is downstream from culture (p. 32, 42). While his nuanced account avoids oversimplified villainization, valorization, and victimization (p. 11), he contends that a particular personal and cultural vice (irresponsibility) got us into the economic and political mess, and only a particular personal and cultural virtue (responsibility) will get us out. Playing the victim card is oh-so-easy since it contains a built-in disincentive for the cardholder to change his bad behavior. What bad behavior? How about easy, no-fault divorce; protracted cohabitation; out-of-wedlock births; long-delayed marriages; overused disability claims; and downright laziness? And that’s just the men. Bahnsen rehearses Charles Murray’s thesis that wealthier Americans are far more pro-family and in general culturally conservative than the impoverished. Murray wishes that the former would “preach what they practice,” and what they practice is precisely the responsibility virtue Bahnsen champions.
Pleasantly False Narratives
Bahnsen’s thesis includes refuting almost universally assumed narratives (“narratives do not like specifics,” p. 20) surrounding the financial crisis. For example, we all know that the 2008 near-collapse is due primarily to the “subprime housing crisis.” The problem is that, in the old adage, what we know ain’t so. Although fraudulent lending and investment overleveraging were causes, they weren’t the leading causes, the chief of which is millions of borrowers “who could afford their home payment, but realized that the sticker price that they paid was far more than the present resale value of the home, and thus made the morally questionable decision to walk away” (p. 52). We were regaled with the accusatory mantra of “predatory lending,” but the far greater culprit was “predatory borrowing” (p. 56). An entire spurious vocabulary was adopted, including “strategic defaulting” (p. 59) = walking away from your mortgage you can afford to pay in order to put yourself in a better financial position. Perhaps we should call 2008 a “strategic collapse.”
Victims of Free Markets?
Bahnsen then takes on the reputed victimization unleashed by the free market and automization. It’s a pity that such a chapter had to be written, because there’s an overabundance of evidence that everywhere they go, free markets create wealth, not victims. It’s true that free trade doesn’t save every possible job, but it creates new jobs. And Bahnsen supports incentives for retraining workers whose jobs have been lost due to global trade and new technologies. He notes the fact, almost never mentioned, that “when multinational companies hire more foreign employees, they also increase domestic hiring” (p. 72, emphasis in original). And he reminds readers that there aren’t enough applicants for all the jobs presently available (p. 74). Talk about inconvenient truths!
Samuel the Jewish Prophet and Crony Capitalism
Anyone assuming Bahnsen’s unalloyed defense of free markets mutes criticism of the misuse of the market should read chapter 6, a searing attack on crony capitalism. He offers a fascinating application of 1 Samuel 8, Israel’s demand for a king. He notes that the rationale the Jews gave to Samuel is that his sons took bribes and perverted justice, lining their own pockets. In other words, an incipient form of crony capitalism inspired them to nag for bigger government in order to suppress the non-virtuous market (pp. 79–80). In the same way, citizens today shed responsibility and ask for bigger government on the grounds that it alone can “drain the swamp” in which grows the vast Business-Government Complex. And the fact is, the swamp needs draining. Free-market Republicans who clamor for special economic favors for pet businesses aren’t really free-marketers at all. The free market must be free for everybody (pp. 83–86). Bahnsen suggests that lower tax rates and decreased regulation for everybody will abolish crony capitalism and quell the populist demands for bloated government power to “level the economic playing field.” A genuinely free market is a level playing field.
Immigration, the Right Kind
In disclosing how the current immigration controversy contributes to cultural irresponsibility, Bahnsen offers a remarkably balanced assessment. He agrees with criticism of an immigration policy that incentivizes illegality and opens welfare coffers for illegals. Moreover, he points out the error of confusing multiculturalism with immigration (pp. 102–105). Multiculturalism argues that all cultures are equally valid and that the United States should not insist on the superiority of its ideals. Multiculturalism trashes American exceptionalism, dilutes a healthy patriotism, and undermines the cultural virtues that for centuries made for the ubiquitous success of the West. An immigration policy catalyzing multiculturalism must be opposed. But Bahnsen notes that this is not what immigration should be about — or has been about for most of America’s history. Assimilating immigrants committed to basic American ideals and to improving our nation has almost always be U.S. immigration policy. It worked wonders. Bahnsen exposes the unfairness and hypocrisy of protectionism (“No one would ever try to protect a Stanford computer science PhD from an invasion of lower-cost programmers from India,” p. 106). He notes, contrary to received opinion, that low-skilled immigrant labor adds jobs for native-born workers (p. 107). Far from victimizing the native-born, immigrants (the right kind) generate wealth. Blaming immigrants for fewer U.S. jobs isn’t just morally wrong; it’s just plain wrong.
The Civil Wrongs of Public Schools
One of the biggest impediments to recovering cultural responsibility is the monopolistic, coercive — and too often substandard — public school system of the United States. Bahnsen declares that educational choice is “the great civil rights issue of our day” (p. 89). He blasts the teachers’ unions, whose monopoly harms the very people (the poor) they claim to be assisting. Insulating themselves from competition (charter and private schools), government schools happily persist in their own lazy incompetence (with some exceptions, of course). Bahnsen wryly observes that if the current populist rage were directed at this educational monopoly, “we would see a truly righteous transformation” (p. 98).
Hothouses of Irresponsibility
He is even more emphatic in exposing the downright evils of our secular post-secondary education. In this mostly dispassionate book, Bahnsen reserves tart rhetoric for “higher education’s safe spaces” (p. 111):
The American university system now offers families the worst of both worlds — inherit insane debt and receive little preparation for adult responsibilities, while being indoctrinated with propositions that undermine the foundational values of Western civilization. That’s right. One can now go broke being taught to think incorrectly.
Bahnsen offers the jarring statistic that “[c]umulative student loan debt now exceeds $1.4 trillion, greater than total national credit card debt and the total national mortgage debt — by a wide margin” (p. 114). If you think that no economic downturn could be as scary as the 2008 home mortgage crisis, re-read that last sentence.
Bahnsen questions the educational orthodoxy that every young person benefits from college, but his chief argument is that today’s university education insulates students from life and cultivates the mentality and attitude of irresponsibility. Our universities are hothouses for the Great Responsibility Recession.
Who Made Big Government?
One of the foundational tenets of conservatism is limited government, which Bahnsen champions, but he cautions blaming big government for all social ills. Big government is the symptom, not the disease (p. 120). The disease is irresponsibility. Citizens, including many conservatives, are quite happy with big government as long as it’s “good” big government. An example is entitlements. He reminds us of the harrowing statistic:
[I]f we spent no money on anything but transfer payments, we would still run a deficit in this country. If we had no governmental departments, no salaries, no military, no debt interest, no programs — just Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, Welfare, Unemployment, and so on — we would still be in a financial hole (p. 125).
Big government didn’t appear overnight. Irresponsible citizens gradually ceded their rightful responsibilities to the federal government — and now have the temerity to complain about the behemoth that is federal government. Like all true conservatives, Bahnsen is an advocate of mediating institutions, what we nowadays call “civil society,” like the family and church and businesses (p. 127). These non-political institutions, not just individuals (he is no fan of “rugged individualism” that bypasses civil society, p. 159) must commandeer the responsibilities that individuals and institutions gradually ceded to the state.
The Responsibility Remedy
In the final two chapters, Bahnsen turns almost entirely from description to prescription. First, how can individuals recover the responsibility mindset? He counsels a ten-item “responsibility remedy” (p. 133), several items of which sound radical, but only because we’ve drifted so far in our Responsibility Recession that responsibility sounds radical: “Thoroughly repudiate defeatism and victimhood in your own life — even when you’ve actually been victimized” (emphasis in original); “Prepare your children for economic self-reliance” (don’t “allow for the years between twenty-one and thirty-five to be merely a time of nonproductive discovery,” p. 139): and “Flee the cult of home ownership and home price appreciation” (p. 141): if you’re using your home equity as an ATM card or as a trading card, you’re acting irresponsibly and will eventually pay the price of a compulsive gambler.
Bahnsen concludes by suggesting the cultural remedy as a counterpart to the individual remedy. He includes the following policy prescriptions: add tax deductibility for job retaining in a dynamic economy, quit using housing policy to engineer social aims, and abolish crony capitalism (pp. 155–156).
He chides conservatives who (legitimately) assail elitism if they do not simultaneously re-appropriate from elites the tasks for which they themselves should have been responsible all along. We must all abandon scapegoatism. We are responsible.
Bahnsen concludes with an autobiographical note, rehearsing his own journey from radical individualism to a responsible pro-liberty view respectful of civil society. His burning passion is human flourishing: that all citizens, whatever their cultural and economic station, can benefit from a free, virtuous society. That society is impossible as long as its members constantly shift responsibility and blame.
The mostly dispassionate language and logic of this book render its bluntly radical thesis less detectible. But make no mistake: if this book were taken seriously by even a sizable minority of ordinary citizens and cultural leaders, the United States of the next few decades would be dramatically different from the one today.
Responsible. And therefore flourishing.