Blaming moral failure for societal woes

But there was a great deal of alarm over the troubles of the African-American community, where social disorder was on the rise even as explicit legal discrimination (although not de facto discrimination) was coming to an end. What was going on?

There were all kinds of theories, ranging from cultural hand-waving to claims that it was all because of welfare. But some people, notably the sociologist William Julius Wilson, argued that the underlying cause was economics: Good jobs, while still fairly plentiful in America as a whole, were disappearing from the urban centers where the African-American population was concentrated. And the social collapse, while real, followed from that underlying cause.

This story contained a clear prediction – namely, that if white Americans were to face a similar disappearance of opportunity, they would develop similar behavior patterns. And sure enough, with the hollowing out of the middle class, we saw what National Review correspondent Kevin Williamson recently described as “the welfare dependency, the drug and alcohol addiction, the family anarchy.”

And what is the lesson here? That poor whites are moral failures, and that they should move to places where there are opportunities (wherever those are). It’s really quite extraordinary.

Mr. Williamson also takes lots of swipes at food stamps, welfare programs and disability insurance, which conservatives insist is riddled with fraud, despite lots of evidence to the contrary.

It’s surely worth noting that other advanced countries, with much more generous welfare states, aren’t dealing with anything like the kind of social collapse we’re seeing in the American heartland.

Just look at the work of Princeton economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton. Why, it’s almost as if having a strong safety net leads to better, not worse, social health. The idea that somehow food stamps are responsible for America’s ills is utterly at odds with the evidence.

(Just as an aside, since someone will bring it up: Other advanced economies are just as open to trade as we are – so whatever you think of free trade, it doesn’t necessarily cause social collapse.)

It turns out that the right’s inability to face up to the evidence on this front is … just like its inability to face up to the evidence on any other front.