What She Said

The historian Gertrude Himmelfarb, who died last Monday, had some thoughts on morals and society in her 1995 Wall Street Journal op-ed.

Liberals and conservatives, radicals and socialists, disagreed about specific policies, but they were agreed on the principle that any measure of relief, for example (or charity, for that matter), had to justify itself by showing that it would promote the moral as well as the material well-being of the recipients….
… This principle stipulated that the condition of the “able-bodied pauper” (it did not apply to the sick, aged or children) be less “eligible”—that is, less desirable, less favorable—than the condition of the independent laborer. And “less-eligibility” meant not only that the pauper receive less by way of relief than the laborer did from his wages, but also that he receive it in such a way as to make pauperism less respectable than work—to “stigmatize” it….
In the past few decades we have deliberately divorced poor relief from moral principles, sanctions or incentives. This reflects in part the theory that society is responsible for all social problems and should therefore assume the task of solving them. …
The divorce of social policy from moral principles—the de-moralization of social policy—also reflects the spirit of relativism that is so pervasive in our time.

Absolutely, what she said. Now we’re at the start of a new year. It’s a good time to set about correcting that moral failure.


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