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"Personal Responsibility" and the Subjection of the Poor: A Critique of Charles Murray

Steve D'Arcy

University of Toronto


The following paper was presented at Strategies of Critique XII: (in)justiced subjects, April 25, 1998, in the session entitled "Subjections and Resurrections." The conference was organized by students of the Graduate Programme in Social & Political Thought at York University.

1. Introduction

Charles Murray, an influential social policy analyst at the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute, was brought to Great Britain in 1989 by the Sunday Times. He identified himself to readers of that publication as "a visitor from a plague area come to see whether the disease is spreading" (Murray 1990: 3).

Though his most important work by that time was ostensibly a study of "the disadvantaged" (Murray 1984), the disease to which he was alluding was not simply disadvantage or poverty as such. Rather, the disease was the problem of "the underclass," that is to say, not just the poor in general, but the "dishonest poor" in particular:
When I use the term "underclass" I am indeed focusing on a certain type of poor person defined not by his condition, e.g., long-term unemployed, but by his deplorable behaviour in response to that condition, e.g., unwilling to take the jobs that are available to him (Murray 1990: 68).
The behaviour of the underclass is "deplorable" by virtue of its failure to conform to certain norms, notably those associated with the "work ethic" and a commitment to the nuclear family. In contrast to the ideal of the hardworking and respectable member of the "honest poor," the "classic member of the underclass," he asserts, is someone who "lives off mainstream society without participating in it" (Murray 1990: 13).

This emphatic attempt to focus attention away from the condition of the poor and toward their behavioural response to that condition is crucial to Murray's project. His aim is to show that "the philosophical denial of personal responsibility for one's behaviour ... has had a pernicious ... effect on the status of poor people" (Murray 1984: 186). The term "philosophical," here, does not mean "metaphysical." "People must be held responsible for their actions," Murray insists. "Whether they are responsible or not in some ultimate philosophical or biochemical sense cannot be the issue if society is to function." According to Murray, the failure to hold poor people accountable for the differing ways in which they respond to their condition, and the "philosophical" or ideological perspectives that encourage that failure, are partly to blame for the intergenerational persistence of poverty. The poor youth who could otherwise aspire -- in Murray's words -- to take advantage of "the socioeconomic mobility [that] has been America's stock in trade," has constantly been undermined by "a social policy telling him, through the way it treated him day to day, that he was an un-responsible victim" (Murray 1984: 187). Even worse, the social policy in question has had the effect of expanding the size of the underclass, rather than shrinking it.

Murray's attempt to reorient the discourse on poverty by highlighting the agency of the poor, and criticizing those perspectives which depict the poor as "un-responsible victims," has been extremely influential over the course of the last decade. No doubt this is partly due to the fact that his arguments provide a convenient justification for certain aspects of the post-Keynesian "supply-side" macroeconomic strategy that has been pragmatically motivated, in light of systemic imperatives of contemporary capitalist development (since the structural economic crisis of the early 1970's). But the plausibility of Murray's case has much to do with the intrinsically (i.e. not just pragmatically) compelling claim that the concept of "victim" does not do justice to the status of poor people as responsible agents.

In this paper, I want to pose and answer a simple question. If Murray's neo-conservative critique of public assistance is grounded in the concern that the latter shows insufficient respect for poor people as autonomous agents, what accounts for the resistance to and suspicion of neo-conservative proposals for welfare reform on the part of poor people themselves? Specifically, does that resistance reflect a misunderstanding of the assumptions animating the neo-conservative agenda for welfare reform? Or, on the contrary, does it reflect a genuine moral insight that Murray himself, and those who find his argument convincing, have for one reason or another overlooked or disavowed? In other words, my intention is to see how far it is possible to legitimate the resistance to "welfare reform" by elucidating its grounds in what I claim is a moral insight operative, if often unthematic, in the activities of the anti-poverty movement.

My strategy has three parts: first, I will seek to explicate a double ambiguity in the conceptual geography of the term "responsibility," distinguishing three senses of "responsibility," and two modes of accountability (the term's primary sense), namely, a third-personal mode and an inter-personal mode; second, I will sketch a historical analogy between the British Poor Law reform of 1834 and the "welfare reform" of today, suggesting that the assumptions underlying the latter are given a more lucid and unflinching formulation in the arguments that were advanced in support of the former; and, finally, I will argue that, once the distinction between third-personal and inter-personal modes of accountability is made explicit, Murray must make a choice about which mode is central for the transformation of social policy: His first option is to abandon the pretence of respecting the autonomy of poor persons as self-legislating moral agents, and to embrace instead the 1834 model of social policy as the manipulative and corrective subjection of members of a problem-population. His second option is, on the contrary, to abandon his claim to make unilateral judgements about which behaviours are "deplorable" appealing only to a dogmatic myth of the "popular wisdom" (or a supposed ethical consensus) and to embrace instead a commitment to co-participation with poor individuals in the project of reaching non-coercive agreement about which action-norms ought to bind the conduct of all, in light of plural but "overlapping" values and interests. I scarcely need to add that the latter option is, ultimately, unavailable to Murray, insofar as the rehabilitation of the primacy of the deserving/undeserving distinction in social policy is for him a point of departure and not a conclusion.

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2. Murray's Use of the Term "Responsibility"

In Losing Ground (1984), Murray uses the term "responsibility" in at least three senses relevant to the social policy discourse on urban poverty. (A fourth use -- causal responsibility -- is derived by extension from one of the other three, so I won't discuss it here).

In a first and perhaps primary sense, "responsibility" denotes a status agents have in relation to some of their actions, namely one of "accountability," as when one says, "You must accept responsibility for the damage caused by your reckless behaviour." In a second sense, the term "responsibility" denotes a certain pattern of conduct connected to an agent, namely an "assigned task" or "unique obligation" which s/he is expected to discharge, as when one says, "Ruling on points of procedure is a responsibility of the chair." In a third sense, the term "responsibility" denotes a relation that an agent may have to her "responsibilities" in the second sense (i.e., to her assigned tasks), namely an attitude of "conscientiousness," a disposition to give due weight to considerations of duty or obligation in determining one's course of action. In this last sense, one may say, "I trust him, because I know him to be a responsible person." It is in connection with this third sense that one sometimes speaks of "irresponsibility," i.e., a lack of due regard for one's duties.

I intend to argue below that there is a reason for Murray's uncertainty about which one of these senses is the crucial one for remedying the failures of American social policy. But first I want to highlight a second ambiguity in Murray's position on the value of personal responsibility.

There have long been two broad approaches to thinking about "moral responsibility" among Western philosophers. On the one hand, there have been those, often Utilitarians, who have seen responsibility as a matter of punishment (e.g., Mill). To be responsible is to be subject to punishment (which is usually seen as appropriate in just those cases where an agent's behaviour can be modified by the application of positive or negative sanctions). On the other hand, there have been those, often sympathetic to broadly Kantian approaches to moral theory, who have seen responsibility as a matter of autonomy. To be responsible, on this second account, is to be capable self-determination, often understood to mean free will, or at least a capacity to achieve a critical distance from one's motives, and to evaluate them in light of higher order principles.

This is not a distinction between senses of the word "responsibility." All concerned agree that the first, and perhaps primary sense of "responsibility," namely, "accountability," is what matters. But they disagree about what, substantively, we are doing when we hold a person accountable for her actions.

I suggest that Murray draws, simultaneously, on both of these strands in the philosophy of moral responsibility. This is revealed, in part, by the fact that he appeals to two distinct sorts of value in justifying his position: on the one hand, he appeals to functional imperatives of social order and economic prosperity; on the other hand, he appeals to values of autonomy and respect for the individual moral agent as self-legislator.

But these distinct sorts of value motivate the practice of holding people accountable in two distinct ways. From a third-personal point of view, i.e., from the standpoint of a disengaged observer, we can attempt to manipulate the behaviour of an agent by shaping the context of her action, by "acting on her possibilities for action," in Foucault's phrase. In this mode, holding a person accountable just means the use of punishments and rewards as incentives to adopt behaviours that we want to encourage (or conversely, to discontinue behaviours that we want to discourage). From an inter-personal point of view, by contrast, i.e., from the standpoint of a co-participant in an interpersonal relationship (or more specifically, a moral community -- a community of moral self-governance), we can praise or blame an agent for her conduct, in terms of how it measures up to standards specified by a binding action-norm to which we think they are committed as morally reasonable agents.

To see the distinction, compare the effort to rehabilitate a criminal with the act of blaming a driver for violating a rule of the road. In the first case, we treat our counterpart as a "rational" actor, responsive to incentives; in the second case, we treat our counterpart as a "reasonable" agent, responsive to moral reasons (i.e., reasoning from overlapping values and joint interests to common obligations).

To sum up: Murray's neo-conservative invocation of the term "responsibility" is ambiguous between three main senses -- roughly, accountability, duty and conscientiousness; but responsibility in the first and primary sense -- accountability -- is itself ambiguous in Murray's theoretical perspective. On the one hand, he gives an account of responsibility in terms of the behaviour-modifying application of punishments and rewards; on the other hand, he wants to draw on the legitimating force associated with the demand for accountability institutionalized in moral communities whose members are committed to agreeing upon generally binding action-norms and holding themselves and each other accountable for how their conduct measures up to those norms.

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3. The Poor Law Report of 1834 and the "Self-Acting Test" of Deservingness

There are many reasons for students of contemporary "welfare reform" to examine the debates concerning the British Poor Laws in the first few decades of the nineteenth century, and in particular the key policy-document which issued from those debates: the Poor Law Report of 1834. For one thing, doing so will help to dispel any notion that public assistance is primarily a device to facilitate income-redistribution (an illusion still cherished by many political philosophers, notably Ronald Dworkin). Perhaps more importantly, examining these debates makes it clear that the assignment to all able-bodied citizens of the task (or "responsibility") of securing, through labour-force participation, their own means of subsistence -- an assignment of decisive importance to today's welfare reformers -- was not then, as Murray claims that it is today, an unproblematically presupposed commitment of "the popular wisdom," but was on the contrary an immensely controversial reversal of the hitherto traditional order, motivated by the pragmatic concerns of elites but never justified by appeal to public values shared by all.

However, I have an additional reason for investigating the poor law debates. The policy agenda advanced by the Poor Law Report of 1834 serves as a useful model of an unambiguously objectivating, or "third-personal," social policy aiming at the regulation and correction (or, as I shall say, the "subjection") of the poor.

I therefore turn now to an examination of the Poor Law Report of 1834, not because of its historical interest (if any), but because of the clarity that it brings to the philosophical study of the "subjection of the poor."

At the turn of the nineteenth century in England, the question of "personal responsibility" and "entitlement" was posed in a striking and enduringly paradigmatic way. On the one hand, many poor people ("paupers") claimed that they were entitled, by virtue of being "Englishmen," to receive public relief -- to have, in the language of the time, "a claim upon the parish" (local government) for support. On the other hand, many employers and political economists (notably, Malthus, Senior and Ricardo) thought that this traditionally recognized claim of each citizen to be entitled to support (based on need) had the dangerous effect of subsidizing indolence, vice and reckless behaviour. (McNally 1993 offers a historical account of this debate.)

The controversy provoked the creation of a Royal Commission on the Poor Laws. The lengthy report of this commission, published in 1834 (reprinted in Checkland 1974), proposed a way of administering public assistance without conceding to the poor any claim to receive relief "as of right" (as an unconditional entitlement). Their program for the reorganization of public assistance had two core elements that remain the core of neo-conservative proposals today:

1. With respect to benefit levels, they must be punitive, in order to discourage long term "dependence" on assistance, i.e., labour force non-participation (cf. Checkland 1974: 335).

2. With respect to behavioural standards, they must be discriminating, in order to inculcate norms of appropriate conduct (cf. Checkland 1974: 378).

The first of these principles has come to be known as "the principle of less eligibility," since the poor law commissioners insisted that the situation of those receiving assistance should always be "less eligible," i.e., less attractive, than "the situation of the independent labourer of the lowest class" (Checkland 1974: 335). The second of the two principles has come to be known as "the deserving/undeserving distinction," because the commissioners agreed that assistance should not be given as an unconditional entitlement, but as conditional upon demonstrable willingness to act in conformity to a series of norms, notably norms of work discipline and an aspiration to self-sufficiency. The behavioural conditions were imposed so that the "paupers" would end up "with their habits improved, to make their way in the world without parochial assistance" (Checkland 1974: 344).

Together, these two principles formed the basis for what the commissioners called "a self-acting test" (Checkland 1974: 378), a system such that qualifying for relief (acceptance of exacting standards of behavioural regulation and supervision in poorhouses) served as direct proof of "deserving" relief (because neither the non-needy nor the lazy would submit themselves to the conditions for receipt of assistance): "the compliance proves the truth of the claim" (Checkland 1974: 378). The design of this "self-acting test" suggests, importantly, that public assistance (as proposed by the Poor Law Report) is not only a means of redistributing income; it is also a means of "improving the habits" of the poor, and thereby "inducing them to rely more on their own resources than they did formerly" (Checkland 1974: 344).

The program of the Poor Law Report provides the model for today's neo-conservative social policy: the goal then, as now, was to relieve destitution in a manner which makes it possible to reform the character of the poor by making assistance conditional on their acceptance of the norms defining appropriate conduct for participation in certain core institutions, notably the labour market.

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4. Governing the Poor: The Dynamics of "Subjection"

The dynamics of this process of character reformation can be elucidated in terms of the notion of power (the governing of conduct), as analysed by Thomas Wartenberg (following Foucault). Wartenberg's analysis depends on the notion of "alignments" of power.
A field of social agents can constitute an alignment in regard to a social agent if and only if, first of all, their actions in regard to that agent are coordinated in a specific manner. To be an alignment, however, the coordinated practices of these social agents need to be comprehensive enough that the social agent facing the alignment encounters the alignment as having control over certain things that she might either need or desire (Wartenberg, quoted in Rouse 1996: 182).
For example, "when judges sentence prisoners or [when] teachers grade students, they exercise power only when other agents," such as wardens or parents, "are prepared to act in ways oriented by what the judges or teachers do" (Rouse 1996: 182), and when the conduct of these "peripheral" agents impacts upon the prisoner's or student's well-being in some significant way.

One of the implications of this analysis is that power can be seen to play a role in the process of "subjection," that is, the formation of character through the inculcation of norms of conduct. As long as the right conditions are in place, Wartenberg says, the existence of a power relationship can "make human beings into the sorts of beings they are by affecting their own constitution at the level of desire, skill, and ability" (Wartenberg 1992: 100). The two conditions necessary for this are, first, that the target of the character-reformation process has a need or desire for that to which the alignment regulates access; and second, that the actions of the subordinate agent have some effect on the actions of the dominant agent.
These two features explain how such power relationships result in a process of subjection. To see this, consider the teacher-student relationship once more. First, note that the teacher-student relationship is characterized by the two [conditions] .... A student's access to certain items, for example jobs, is at least partially determined by the grading alignment. It is also true that a student does have a great deal of influence upon how a teacher grades him. By working harder, he will usually be able to produce better papers and examinations, the sorts of things that form the basis for the teacher's evaluation. Indeed, the point of the power relationship is precisely to get the student to adopt such a strategy .... As a result of the existence of power relationships, the subordinate agent comes to adopt certain courses of action for the instrumental value they have in allowing him to realize his purposes. But this process is precisely one of subjection (Wartenberg 1992: 99-100).
In short, the capacity to make access to a desired or needed good conditional on conformity to definite behavioural expectations (norms) can be a way of inducing individuals to internalize those expectations, and to become the sorts of people who expect the favoured conduct of themselves. This effort to mobilize power relationships in order to transform the character of individuals by inducing them to internalize the behavioural expectations defining a social identity (e.g., a good student) is what Foucault has called "subjection" (Foucault 1983; D'Arcy 1996 presents a particular interpretation and application of this concept).

The proposals for the reorganization of public assistance laid out in the Poor Law Report of 1834, I suggest, amount to the rudiments of a program for the subjection of the poor: an effort to induce the poor, by systematically regulating their access to "relief" through a self-acting test of "worthiness," to become the sorts of person that the authorities want them to be, namely, people fitting the description of the "deserving poor" (hard-working, "responsible" people who would work for low wages if the work were available, and whose poverty counts as a case of what the Poor Law commissioners called "blameless want" [Checkland 1974: 378]). But that is precisely the program for "welfare reform" advanced by neo-conservatives like Murray today (even if, in Murray's case, the exact proposal is that such subjection of the poor should be administered privately by charities, in order to maximize the capacity for behavioural monitoring and minimize the demand for democratic legitimation).

In this context, as in the context of Foucault's work, the choice of the term "subjection" is motivated by that term's double-meaning: on the one hand, to become an individual "subject," to have one's character shaped; on the other, to become "subject to" or dependent on others, who have power over one's capacity to act (Foucault 1983: 212). This formula raises an important question: Is "subjection" a bad thing (as the term seems to suggest)? Are not efforts to influence the character formation of others a pervasive feature of life generally, and the life of institutions in particular?

We may agree that public assistance in general, and today's "welfare reform" in particular, is not only a mechanism for the redistribution of wealth, but also a strategy for governing the conduct of the poor. We may even agree that the widespread conviction that public assistance must deal with the marginality or so-called "social isolation" of the poor reflects an interest in regulating their participation in mainstream institutions like the labour-market and the nuclear family. But none of this entails that we should be opposed to public assistance on the Poor Law Report model. The government of conduct (as Foucault, for one, often insisted) is an inherent feature of social life that one cannot seriously be opposed to, in a generalized and indiscriminate way.

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5. What's Wrong With Subjection?

The question, then, is: What is wrong with the subjection of the poor? There is, I think, a long answer to this question, which would involve reference to an elaborated theory of justice, something like those offered by both liberal and socialist egalitarians, and foreshadowed already by Marx and others in the nineteenth century (cf. D'Arcy 1998).

But, here, I will only attempt to sketch a short answer to this question, proposing a "dialectical" argument relying on Murray's own expressed moral commitments in order to undermine the credibility of his policy conclusions.

Murray's critique of classical welfare state public assistance (i.e., assistance administered through means-tested entitlements) relies on repeated justificatory appeals to the value of personal responsibility. He thinks that this value can be captured by the idea of the application of positive and negative sanctions in order to induce individuals to internalize a set of authorized norms of conduct. It is this conviction that enables him to use the term "responsibility" in three demonstrably distinct senses -- accountability, duty and conscientiousness -- evidently oblivious to the conceptual confusion this implies. Accountability is seen by Murray as a mechanism for inducing people to become conscientious with respect to the performance of their assigned duties. In other words, he wants to hold people responsible (in the sense of accountable) so that they will in time take a more responsible (in the sense of conscientious) attitude toward their civic responsibilities (in the sense of duties). In short, the ambiguity in Murray's use of the term "responsibility" is encouraged by a systematic relationship between accountability, conscientiousness and duty in the Poor Law Report model of public assistance.

But the second, and more important, sort of ambiguity in Murray's appeals to responsibility is between two modes of accountability. I have argued that Murray's conception of accountability is best captured by the "third-personal" mode of accountability where punishments and rewards are brought to bear in the context of a systematic technique of subjection. The other mode of accountability -- the "inter-personal" mode -- invokes a different way of relating to the individuals being held accountable, namely, one in which we regard ourselves and our accountable counterpart as co-participants in a relationship of mutual accountability, or what Peter Strawson calls a "moral community."

Murray says that he wants to be able to blame the poor. In fact, he basically defines the key term "underclass" as those poor people who deserve to be blamed for their "deplorable" conduct. Moreover, he specifically mentions at one point that he wants to be able to blame the poor in the same way that he blames his own adult daughter. To treat poor people otherwise, he argues, would be to fail to treat them with the respect we owe to all of our fellow-citizens, regardless of their income-level. Any refusal to treat the poor as subject (in principle) to blame, he argues, emphatically, would violate "the injunction to respect the poor" (Murray 1984: 223).

What he overlooks here is that the mode of accountability of his daughter to him cannot be captured in terms of a "third-personal" account of what it is to be held accountable. To be subject not only to efficacious punishment, but also to deserved blame, one must not only be regarded as rational (or responsive to incentives), but also as reasonable (or committed to reaching uncoerced agreement on action-norms, justifiable to all and binding on each). His daughter might rationally steal a friend's money, but she could not reasonably do so (see Rawls 1993), unless she could not, from a moral point of view, regard the prohibition against that behaviour as justifiably binding on each, i.e., unless she did not participate in a moral community bound by that norm.

Taking this distinction (between the rational and the reasonable) into account, we can see what is wrong with the subjection of the poor, from Murray's own point of view (but not yet absolutely, prior to the articulation of a theory of justice). It does not allow us to relate to poor people with that mode of respect entailed by the practice of blaming. One does not blame a dog -- but at most punishes it -- for seeking to eat another dog's food. Why is that? It is because we do not think that we could justify to a dog, nor that it would be appropriate to try to justify to a dog, the norm against stealing. That is to say, we do not think that the "ought-character" of the norm could be recognized by the dog; we do not expect it to be reasonable (that is, responsive to moral reasoning). But blaming implies an expectation that its object will feel guilty, that the object could not justify a failure to feel guilty. That is, we think that the violated binding action-norm could be justified to the blamed violator, arguing from reasons that she could accept. And that is another way of saying that we regard her as a co-participant, with us, in a moral community. We expect her not only to behave in an instrumentally rational way, responding to sanctions, but also to conduct herself in a morally rational, i.e., a reasonable way. We expect her to conduct herself in a way such as "to be able to justify [her] actions to others on grounds they could not reasonably reject" (Rawls 1993).

This, finally, brings me back to the resistance to welfare reform I mentioned at the outset. That resistance is legitimate, I can now claim, to the extent that Murray's own demand to treat the poor with the respect owed to autonomous agent is legitimate, and to the extent that his demand to uphold the value of "personal responsibility" is legitimate. But the "personal responsibility" that we value cannot be understood as the accountability that we make use of in training a dog to fetch, or in the subjection of the poor. The "personal responsibility" that we value is the sort that is necessary for the reproduction of moral communities of mutual accountability -- the mutual accountability of co-participants in the practice of collective moral self-governance. And that is the very value of personal responsibility to which we appeal when we resist contemporary welfare reform, and (even more so) when we blame others for accepting it.

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Checkland, S.G. and E.O., eds. 1974. The Poor Law Report of 1834. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

D'Arcy, Steve. 1996. "Toward a Historical Ontology of So-Called 'Jamaican Crime' in Toronto, 1994." Paper presented to the Canadian Graduate Students' Conference in Philosophy, at the University of Toronto on April 13, 1996.

----------. 1998. "Equality, Need and Ability: Elucidating Marx's Egalitarianism." Paper presented to the "Use and Abuse of Philosophy" conference, at Queen's University, Kingston, on March 13, 1998.

Foucault, Michel. 1983. "The Subject and Power." In Hubert Dreyfus and Paul Rabinow, Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics, 2nd, expanded edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

McNally, David. 1993. Against the Market: Political Economy, Market Socialism, and the Marxist Critique. New York: Verso.

Murray, Charles. 1984. Losing Ground. New York: Basic Books.

----------. 1990. The Emerging British Underclass. London: IEA Health and Welfare Unit.

Rawls, John. 1993. Political Liberalism. New York: Columbia University Press.

Rouse, Joseph. 1996. Engaging Science: How to Understand Its Practices Philosophically. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Wartenberg, Thomas. 1992. "Situated Social Power." In Rethinking Power, ed. T.E. Wartenberg. Albany: SUNY Press.

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