On the “Back Page” column in December’s First Things, Mark Bauerlein profiles a few real-life characters from the seedy side of life. Bob (out of J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy) can’t put in the minimal effort to capitalize on the opportunity of a warehouse job. Ray (out of Bauerlein’s own experience) would rather blow a big gambling win on an expensive vacation than set himself up for a summer of stability.
Those of us who’ve spent some time struggling financially and in the company of others doing the same will have similar stories. Bauerlein asks and answers the “why”:
I asked my friend David, an attorney with underclass clients, to account for Bob. He replied, “The guy has no sense of an order higher than himself.” That sounded too conceptual, so I asked for specifics. “Bob has no idea that the company he works for has to have people do things or it can’t survive. To him, it’s just some force telling him what to do.” The company has to operate on a long-term plan, he said, but Bob can’t see it and he has no plan of his own.
That clicked as soon as he said it. Bob and Ray will remain who they are until they realize there is an order to existence, and that it is rational and good. A higher plan would prompt Bob to devise a “lower” plan of some kind. It would make Ray seek the stability of the motel across the street. Without it, company demands are unreasonable to Bob, and Ray sees the motel as a sad alternative to three wild days down south. Secular minds don’t make this connection between metaphysical order and daily habits. The lure of prosperity should be enough to ensure good behavior, and welfare programs should work. But they don’t, not for Bob and Ray and others in the underclass. That’s why secularists say, “They just need more education.” They suspect that some kind of moral reform is needed, but they don’t want it to be metaphysical.
The secular, policy answer is to foster circumstances that allow metaphysics to do their work, mostly by giving individuals incentive to seek, and communities space to provide, answers.