The Proud Duck

Thoughts on policy, history, faith, baseball when I get around to it, waterfowl, and life in general by a junior attorney who'd much rather have Jonah Goldberg's job. Or possibly Darin Erstad's.

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Thursday, January 11, 2007
I've said before that the greatest hardship poor Americans have to deal with is having to live with other poor Americans. That's not to say the poor are necessarily less "moral" than the wealthy -- there are plenty of rich people who are utterly wicked, as the Bible itself points out again and again, and who'd think nothing of stealing their own grandmother's life savings between rounds of golf. But the wealthy tend to keep their disorder private. Ken Lay may have been defrauding millions of people of their life savings, but I'm sure he was a nice enough neighbor, and very unlikely to steal your car stereo.

And having your car stereo stolen, your kid robbed at gunpoint, your daughter raped, etc. is probably the greatest suffering imposed by American poverty. By most objective measures, poor Americans' material standard of living -- based on living space and consumption of goods -- is comparable to the standard of living of many ordinary non-poor Europeans.

The problem is that economic inequality does matter in this one regard: Public disorder tends to become concentrated in those communities that are poorer relative to others, regardless of their absolute wealth. The reason for this is that public disorder arises largely from private disorder -- people's unwillingness to police themselves, leaving only the imperfect controls of the police to impose order. Private disorder is correlated with poverty; people with poor impulse controls aren't likely to be high achievers. People who are competent enough to rise in society will naturally prefer to leave disordered communities -- segregating them further as enclaves of lowlifes and making them even more disordered.

A liberal might say that the solution is then to eliminate economic inequality. She would be wrong. Eliminating economic inequality entirely is impossible, short of the full Harrison Bergeron treatment, since random contingency will always allocate talent, personality, and good fortune differently. And as long as even some inequality persists, people's natural inclination to self-segregate with people of equivalent class will persist, and the neighborhoods at the bottom will always be the roughest -- for the simple reason that people with sufficient means will always want to escape them. Thus, even with Sweden's relatively low economic inequality, there are of course still neighborhoods where a woman can't walk alone at night. (Those neighborhoods happen to be largely populated by Muslim immigrants, BTW, which is really starting to cheese the Swedes off, but that's another matter.)

Even though poverty is associated with disorder, with the poorer neighborhoods more disorderly than affluent ones, the absolute level of disorder in the poorest communities can vary. Cultures influence behavior. A culture that successfully imposes greater informal restraints on behavior will still have its poorest neighborhoods be the roughest ones -- but those roughest neighborhoods will be less disordered than the worst neighborhoods in a society whose culture does not impose such restraints. Thus, even though South Los Angeles and South Malmo (I'm guessing here) may lie at the bottom of America's and Sweden's respective wealth-and-order scales, South Malmo will be less disorderly than South LA -- because Swedes are less disorderly than Americans.

In other words, making America more like Sweden won't solve the problems many liberals claim it will -- because Americans aren't Swedes.