David L. Bahnsen. Crisis of Responsibility: Our Cultural Addiction to Blame and How You Can Cure It. New York: Post Hill Press, 2018. 171 pp. Hardback, $22.19. ISBN: 978-7-68261-625-3.
What is wrong with America?
This is the question we’ve all been asking ourselves the last few years since the 2016 election and the rise of Donald Trump. Political divisions seem close to rendering our union asunder. Educational prices have skyrocketed and our once stalwart universities rush headlong into a worrying state of decay. Government continues to grow ever bigger, as if it had nothing else to do. Income inequality widens, as economists and public officials wring their hands in worry. Climate change, foreign relations, trade deficits, stagnant wages, declining religious interest and attendance—you name it, America seems to be falling apart. What’s going on?
With the election of Trump we have gotten used to talking about a rising tide of populism, nationalism, and tribalism. The white working class, all but forgotten and left to rot in a global economy, has struck back. These things are certainly true, but if anything, they are ephemeral cultural shifts that won’t last or ultimately change our national course. What can explain not only the bizarre political atmosphere we find ourselves in but also the generally anemic state of American culture, economy, and society? Enter stage left David L. Bahnsen, the Managing Partner and Chief Investment Officer of the Bahnsen Group of HighTower Advisors. Bahnsen has written a dazzling cultural analysis of the current state of America that not only explains where we find ourselves, but more importantly why. In the ethos of Thomas Sowell, Bahnsen avers that whether we’re talking about financial booms and busts, the decay of the family, the troubling state of education, immigration, or free trade, what really plagues America—and what binds all the aforementioned problems together—is cultural crisis of responsibility. As a people we have failed to take responsibility for ourselves, our families, neighbors, and communities, but have instead succumbed to recklessness, greed, laziness, and above all, a degenerative spirit of victimization.
Bahnsen kicks off his book in the first two chapters by discussing our current state of affairs. In the West, two events highlighted a common sentiment among the people: the UK’s exit from the European Union (“Brexit”) and the election of Trump revealed a deep distrust for cultural elites and the belief that the “system was rigged.” Not only was someone (or something) to blame, but these events brought to light the jagged lines of class division wherein one constituency wasn’t even aware of how the other was thinking or feeling. Cultural cosmopolitanism squared off against cultural traditionalism, but the result was the same: scapegoating the other. This scapegoating, in turn, took on the form of naming your bogeyman. Many blamed Wall Street, others free trade; big business, a biased media, Mexico, NAFTA, the alt-right, and China all took their turn in the bogeyman limelight. The result was an abstracted, composite, catch-all bogeyman whose boundaries constantly shifted and into whose orbit anyone and anything could be sucked. This had the inadvertent effect of making the Left and Right look awfully similar in their form and function, and which in the case of the Trump campaign, even brought opposing sides under the same political banner. Bahnsen eschews this ‘us-versus-them’ approach; instead, he takes a case-by-case, evidential (and inductive) approach that looks at each issue or societal component in turn to discern to what extent it did or did not contribute to our woes. The result is that Bahnsen skillfully uses our common institutions, problems, and angst as a mirror reflecting ourselves that reveals a decadent people in confusion who have brought trouble down upon themselves.
Chapter three on the social disintegration of America society is critical for Bahnsen’s project. The dominant narrative on the Right is that leftism in the form of government overreach, redistribution, and statism, and the progressive cultural agenda of redefining marriage and gender, race relations, and crushing religious liberty is the cause of all our problems. Absent such oppressive forces, Americans desire to be good, hard working, religious, and virtuous folk who would make the world a better place. While Bahnsen doesn’t hold back in his abrasive critique of the Left, he essentially thinks this picture is incomplete: instead, these challenges are not the result of bad behavior by the opposition camp, but instead they are caused and enabled by a dereliction of virtue among ourselves that hinders a proper response to hard times. Bahnsen then dives into the literature and stats about the dilapidated state of marriage and the family in our society today, the sad story of unmarried men living with their parents well into their thirties, the irresponsible shunning of work by able-bodied Americans, and the dramatic but shameful rise of disability insurance claims by those who don’t really need it. All of this adds up to a fraying social fabric and an atomized and isolated civil society that all too easily turns to government for deliverance. None of this will end until we confront this moral rot head on, and that requires an unequivocal rejection of moral relativism and non-judgmentalism so that we can speak tough truths to ourselves and others.
In many ways chapter four, on the 2008 Great Recession, is the heart of the book. In the introduction Bahnsen recounts how in the aftermath of the financial crash he consumed over 70 books and hundreds of articles about the economic disaster, and that he had originally planned to write a book analyzing that event in detail. However, as he read and reviewed over the years, he found the blame game was rampant and key issues were left unexamined or conspicuously avoided by other authors. This book represents his attempt to address those issues, both on the crisis in particular, but also in the broader culture as well. Bahnsen begins by rehearsing the well-worn public narrative about the financial crisis: fat cat bankers in collusion with certain government officials engaged in shady sub-prime mortgage lending, and when the whole thing went belly up they got a bail-out on the taxpayer’s dime while the little guy suffered. It was unfettered capitalism driven by ambition and greed run amok. While he doesn’t deny parts of this, Bahnsen adheres to what he calls a “perfect storm theory,” where there were multiple bad players and the single thread that strung them all together was nothing but covetousness and envy:
The truth is this: while Wall Street was riddled with both covetous greed and arrogant incompetence, no financial crisis of any kind could have taken place without the envious and covetous irresponsibility of the people living on good old Main Street, USA (p. 51).
Bahnsen’s main point that Main Street (you and me) are just as much to blame for the financial crisis as Wall Street is a painful pill to swallow. Yet there is a ring of truth to it, and with that comes a refreshing clarity and catharsis. He divides Main Street into four kinds of actors: the Swindled, the Reckless, the Gamblers, and the Diligent. The first and fourth groups aren’t directly to blame; they just got the short end of the stick. The real guilt here lies with the Reckless and Gamblers. These were financially capable persons who risked too much or who opted for strategic default. As the equity of their homes plunged, they found it more advantageous to default and walk away from their mortgage(s), even though they were perfectly capable of fulfilling their financial obligations. In this sense, it wasn’t so much credit unworthiness and the sub-prime market (itself an incomplete story) that drove the crisis, as sheer financial irresponsibility and envy. What this means is the relationship between Wall Street and Main Street is inverted to what we normally think: without the Reckless and Gamblers, Wall Street would have had no mortgage investments to bet on, and there would have been no financial crisis. Thus, it turns out that in this case Wall Street is the result of our responsibility crisis, not so much the cause of it. Bahnsen has much more to say about the financial disaster, and his analysis is superb. If he does ever resurrect his detailed book analyzing the 2008 financial crash, I will be the first to read it for I know it would be a gem.
The next two chapters (five and six) cover free trade, the labor market, and crony capitalism. Here Bahnsen makes four major points. First, free trade combined with technological advances, innovation, and labor specialization has propelled American economic growth forward, as we’ve been able to do more with less. He pounds the last nails in the coffin of free trade antagonists, pointing out that 90% of the benefits of free trade accrue to the poor and middle classes. Second, protectionist policies in the form of singling out certain groups for special gain or tariffs to punish international trading partners is an immoral and dead-end street. Third, what America really needs is a dynamic and adaptable labor force that is able to learn new skills as the global labor market changes. This is one of the most important lessons in the book: much how agricultural labor in the mid-to-late eighteenth century had to adapt or die in the face of the industrial revolution, so today industrial labor must adapt or die in the face of the technological, digital, and financial revolutions. Many hard-working families won’t like to hear this, but it is our reality, and we must vigorously pursue retraining and reeducation (vocational school anyone?) paths to labor dynamism. Fourth, Bahnsen tackles the fact that a breakdown in self-government and self-restraint inevitably tempts a people to call for a king to rule over them (cf. 1 Sam. 8) who will aid them through economic and political cronyism. In this sense, our crisis of responsibility led first to crony capitalism, which in turn yielded statism. Bahnsen calls for a pro-business environment with lower tax and regulatory burdens, opportunity for all, and equal treatment under the law; double standards practiced by both sides have got to go.
Education and education choice are the topic of chapter seven. Bahnsen rightly calls the lack of educational choice and academic freedom the “civil rights issue of our day,” for many are being denied a basic and necessary education for the sake of a cute ideology or adult power plays. He draws attention to a false educational philosophy, channeling R. J. Rushdoony to condemn a “messianic vision” of American education that places all the burdens of a coherent and prosperous civil society on educational outcomes. This ignores the fact that education plays a supplementary role alongside family, religious life, and community engagement. Such myopia results in education becoming the sine qua non of the liberal order, the laboratory of political and ideological formation where future citizens are foundationally shaped to carry on the modern project (often in unhealthy or nefarious ways). Bahnsen excoriates this approach, emphasizing the importance of moral and character development in education alongside the acquisition of basic knowledge and skills. For this to occur, we need healthy competition and school choice in order to give parents the flexibility to place their children in schools that best suit them. Bahnsen’s not against public education; he even contends that school choice would have a positive ripple effect for public schools as it would weed out underperforming institutions and force the public sector to compete to survive.
It is no secret that education is a (but not the only) critical factor in the success of individuals and families; it is also no secret that the U.S. spends an inordinate amount of money per pupil on K-12 education (~$12,000), and yet we perform dismally on international test results. Overcoming these handicaps is difficult, however, for there are powerful and wealthy teacher unions that selfishly keep American education under their thumb. This is combined with an elitism that discriminates against the middle- and lower-income classes as well as ethnic minorities who too often lack the resources to escape the sinkhole of public education. In the end Bahnsen calls for a local, subsidiarity approach that places responsibility back in the hands of parents and the community, and that rightly views education as one building block that is necessary for us to begin rehabilitating our culture.
In chapter eight Bahnsen tackles the thorny issue of immigration, a topic that not only splits Left and Right, but divides conservatives as well. He rightly states that America has long been pro-immigration, and his overall position is sympathetic to that of the immigrant even though he emphasizes the importance of the rule of law, national security, and sensible cultural assimilation. Bahnsen targets two concerns, one from the Right and the other from the Left: first, the lie that illegal immigrants are destroying our economy or taking American jobs and wages; and second, the scourge of multiculturalism that has infected the immigration debate and inflicted untold damage. Regarding the first, Bahnsen aptly contends that “the notion that hardworking American citizens are being denied a chance to make an honest wage by illegal immigrants is economic mythology” (pp. 101-102). America has absorbed millions of immigrants over her history, and our labor force and economic health has not only adjusted for this fact, but prospered. Immigrants have more often than not brought ingenuity, work ethic, innovation, and entrepreneurship that has enriched our heritage. The problem is not immigrants; the problem is a culture in decline marked by a massive welfare state that attracts immigrants as moths to a light. Regarding the second, a noxious multicultural worldview has hampered honest national discussions about immigration and hamstrung wise and effective policy solutions. This approach most notably affects practices of assimilation, since in the name of tolerance, diversity, and equality immigrants are no longer required to learn the English language, know our history, and appreciate American civic life. Yet being American was never incompatible with being multiethnic, precisely because America from the beginning was an idea, not a bloodline or ancestral pedigree. Multiculturalism not only lies about American history and culture, but it hurts needy and desperate immigrants in the process.
Two additions could have strengthened this chapter. First, in a book about a responsibility crisis, what responsibility do both legal and illegal immigrants bear for the state of immigration in our country? Would Bahnsen argue that immigrants seeking entrance into the U.S. shun the illegal option and wait their turn in line, even if this means hardship in the short-term such as having to wait years (if not decades) and separation from family and loved ones? What are immigrants supposed to do in the face of unjust laws that tear families apart or impose economic ruin? Do legal immigrants have duties to assimilate themselves to American culture—even if not required—and not retreat to ethnic enclaves, and if so, to what extent? Bahnsen hints that immigrants (no matter their status) shouldn’t take advantage of our welfare benefits, but I’d love to hear a more robust account of the nature and justification of immigrant responsibility in general and sans citizenship in particular. Second, while rightly targeting multiculturalism as a plague upon our nation, the concept is never defined or developed at any length in the book. This won’t be a problem for conservatives who are familiar with this seven-headed hydra, but progressives and leftists won’t be convinced. After all, the definition of multiculturalism is rather benign. No one is against distinct cultural or ethnic groups, and Bahnsen himself sings the praises of multinational immigration. Rather, I think Bahnsen has in mind what’s termed “ethnorelativism,” which is the view that all cultures are essentially equal, and which requires that we maintain neutrality and withhold judgment toward cultures different than our own. (To be fair, multiculturalism is usually used in the ethnorelative sense, but we should seek precision here so as to not give liberal-progressives an excuse to call us bigots.) We both believe ethnorelativism is demonstrably false; but what about it makes it so? And how do we go about judging one culture better or worse than another in an honest and non-pejorative way, and how would such an evaluation affect the immigration debate (i.e., should we favor immigrants from healthier cultures?). Addressing both of these issues would have made this chapter richer.
Chapter nine covers higher education, and the blight of an unsustainable business model that involves perverse government subsidies that has oversaturated demand for education and thus driven up tuition costs while devaluing the real-world benefits of a college degree. To be sure, Bahnsen isn’t against college; but he is against the reckless irresponsibility shown by those who blindly pursue a six-figure education and by those who finance it through endless loans. There are other healthy options that Americans can explore, such as private, faith-based academies, trade schools, business experience, or even the military. Compounding the problem is the nonsense college students are taught these days, as too many opt for fringe advocacy studies in Anti-American Grievance 101 that requires safe spaces and trigger warnings. And even if students seek traditional degree programs, the entire university is now saturated in an intolerant, ideologically-biased, and anti-intellectual milieu that is counterproductive to the very purposes of higher education. Bahnsen’s warning churns the stomach: American students,
inherit insane debt and receive little preparation for adult responsibilities, while being indoctrinated with propositions that undermine the foundational values of Western civilization. That’s right. One can now go broke being taught to think incorrectly (p. 112).
The result is a higher education system that spits out fragile twenty-somethings with massive negative equity who have no practical experience and know virtually nothing about real life.
Big government is the topic of chapter ten, where Bahnsen makes the basic argument that government grows in proportion to the people’s desire and willingness to let it grow. He rightly explains the limited constitutional strictures originally placed upon our government (i.e., checks and balances, enumerated powers, and delegation of powers), and the fact that such a political system could only work with a moral and virtuous citizenry. Bahnsen then walks us through some of the sickening statistics about the unsustainable size of the federal government, and how the very nature of government growth and spending is inimical to economic progress since the government is a consumer, not producer, of resources. The core of Bahnsen’s argument in this chapter boils down to the fact that America’s mediating institutions—those aspects of civil society like the family, church, fraternal societies, local clubs, etc.—have collapsed, and that government has now filled the void. Who is responsible for this societal collapse? We the people. I completely agree with Bahnsen’s point in this chapter, and it is a point that needs to be made because it is so often neglected; however, I do think that once government grows large enough it becomes its own self-sustaining, consuming, and usurping beast, which results in a destructive dialectic of the people abdicating their responsibilities and the government imposing its will against the people (or at least a sizable minority of the people). We can and should blame an out-of-control government for many abuses—I doubt Bahnsen would disagree—even while admitting our own complicity.
The last two chapters in the book (eleven and twelve) are Bahnsen’s answer to our culture of blame and our responsibility crisis. In keeping with a book about a people’s crisis, Bahnsen sets forth some concrete suggestions on what you and I can do starting today. He lists ten things, such as repudiating victimhood, rethinking education, getting your own fiscal house in order, and the like (I won’t list them all so as to not give away all the goodies—you’ll have to buy the book!). One of my favorites was his clarion call to “reengage the lost world of local politics.” Bahnsen repeatedly makes a point throughout the book that local politics are often just a mirror of federal politics, with all the same corruption and insider deals and blackmail that we’re used to seeing at the national scale. Unless virtuous citizens get involved locally in their city councils and state governments, the most vicious and unscrupulous among us will fill these positions and then rise to the top in federal elections. In one sense, we are now at the national level bearing the rotton fruit of decades of corrupt local politics. Bahnsen is a realist about all this as well. Transformation won’t happen overnight; it took us decades (half a century or more) to get into this mess, and it’s going to take an incremental and persistent approach over the years to come to get us out. Bahnsen ends his book by striking a humble tone, in his hope that his message has the modest impact of changing the national narrative and causing an irresponsible people to critically examine themselves and their communities anew.
I have three brief recommendations on how this excellent book could possibly be even better. All of them fall under the umbrella of what was missing, as opposed to criticism of what was said. Of course, this might be unfair to Bahnsen, as anyone of his intellectual and epistemic capacity is never short of ideas or words. I’m sure many good things were cut out of the book, as we all have to draw the line somewhere and hit the publish button. Still, here’s a few suggestions.
First, Bahnsen is absolutely correct about the decline of a virtuous citizenry in our nation, and that addressing the political, economic, and cultural crises that beset us will require first introspectively examining ourselves and reforming our own vices—at the individual, family, and community levels. However, this brings up two additional questions that aren’t addressed: first, where does virtue come from and how is it that we become virtuous people in the first place, and second, what did the American founders believe about the role of virtue in the life of a republican nation? The answers to these questions dovetail, for both point toward the integral relationship between virtue and sincere religious belief and practice. In his many writings (esp. A Free People’s Suicide), philosopher and social critic Os Guinness has discussed what he calls the founders’ “Golden Triangle of Freedom,” wherein freedom in the personal and political spheres relies upon virtue, and virtue upon religion, and religion upon freedom, creating a dynamic and mutually dependent circular dialectic between these concepts. We can and should call for people to return to the good life (eudaimonia) marked by virtue (arête), but understanding what the virtues are, how we become virtuous, and the relationship of virtue to freedom and religion, must also be addressed.
Second, and related to the first, there was no chapter in the book on religion. This seems like a significant oversight given the decline in religious devotion in America over the past few decades, especially within Christianity. The rise of the ‘Nones’—millennials who have left the church and claim no particular religious allegiance—has been extensively studied and bemoaned. Coinciding with this is a new, militant atheism that has aggressively attacked all religious faiths and decried them as inimical to modern, enlightened civilization. Combined with secular humanism that has marched through our universities, our civic institutions, and now our political structures, America is facing a religious crisis: will we maintain and rejuvenate our Judeo-Christian foundation, or will we slowly slide the way of a secular, social-Democratic Europe? Given that Europe faces its own crisis of responsibility that is far more advanced than America’s, it is critical that we understand the forces that reduced a once-proud civilization to such a humiliating and embarrassing state—with the abandonment of religious faith being a central factor.
Additionally, I’m curious how Bahnsen would relate his thesis to Protestant Christianity in particular. What role does the gospel of Jesus Christ play in becoming a virtuous, responsible, and contributing citizen of a secular country? Bahnsen speaks repeatedly and highly of a healthy individuality and self-reliance, but these concepts are routinely rejected by many Christian scholars and pastors as being anti-Christian and secular impositions that have polluted authentic Christian faith and discipleship (e.g., the rugged individualism of the western frontiersman). Although Bahnsen does note the distinction between individual responsibility and individualism (p. 159), a more sustained examination of the relationship between these two—and between the concepts of self-reliance and biblical community—would have been helpful. Of course, since his target audience is much broader than Christian or evangelical subcultures, it is understandable that Bahnsen doesn’t delve into these tribal debates. Still, I can guarantee you that many Christians will reject Bahnsen’s thesis outright as an example of a pseudo-Christian civil religion or self-help gospel that supposedly fails to grasp the radical message of the New Testament. I don’t believe this, and I know Bahnsen doesn’t either, but a defense of his book on this front will likely be necessary.
Third and finally, I think a chapter on the philosophical and cultural ideas that have animated American civilization for the past century, and that have decidedly contributed to our crisis of responsibility, would have grounded the book and propelled it forward. I have already mentioned the rise of secular humanism and atheism, the decline of religion, and a rejection of the Judeo-Christian worldview and its moral norms. But other issues include:
- An existentialism (à la Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Jean-Paul Sartre) that has prioritized existence over essence and thus yielded a neo-Gnosticism that subverts physical reality to the hedonistic desires of the immaterial self.
- A scientific materialism that reduces every discipline to a math (à la Immanuel Kant) and every human to an evolving, material robot that must conquer the external world or go extinct.
- A modern liberalism—what some have called “liquid modernity”—that is a faux liberalism and a rejection of classical liberalism (built upon a natural law ethic), and which carries the seeds of its own demise and masks a silent but deadly tyranny.
- A neo-Marxist critical theory that rejects the foundations of the Western political and legal order, and manifests itself in legal, racial, gender, and various other educational studies; and which has given us the notions of white privilege, structural racism, intersectionality, social justice, identity politics, storytelling, microaggressions, safe spaces, and the like.
- Finally, a deeply entrenched anti-American, 1960s countercultural ethos that pervades Hollywood, elite culture, political institutions, and the academy (e.g., America as an imperialist, colonializing, white-supremacist, misogynistic patriarchy).
These are just some of the reasons America has fallen off the character cliff and is facing a crisis of responsibility, and until they are elucidated and rebuffed, I’m not sure we will make any progress. A chapter tackling theoretical concepts in the philosophy of ideas and sociology of knowledge would help make sense of so much else the book discusses—as well as ploughing fertile ground for multifarious and trenchant solutions.
Overall, this is an outstanding book. Bahnsen should be praised for writing an accessible, short, and clear work on the very real and deadly problem of an American culture bereft of personal responsibility and addicted to blame and victimization. He deftly uncovers the systemic and pernicious presence of this ailment in chapter after chapter, highlighting the ways in which character flaws in the American people are the cause of recent policy failures that have aroused so much national angst. He combines policy and financial prowess with a keen understanding of character, culture, and the habits of the heart to give us a balanced analysis that not only rings true, but excites and inspires. For if all our problems are due to external bogeyman, not much can be done except gnash our teeth, emote outrage, and eternally stir the pot of proletarian revolution. Yet if our troubles lie closer to home—and especially if overcoming genuine disadvantages depends upon our own resolve—then there is something we can do that will affect real and lasting change. This is the hope and promise Bahnsen holds out to us, and it is a message we desperately need to hear and heed. Get the book and read it—you won’t be disappointed.
Ben is a graduate of Denver Seminary, having completed a double MA in New Testament Biblical Studies and Christian Apologetics and Ethics. He will be pursuing a PhD in Politics at the Van Andel Graduate School of Statesmanship at Hillsdale College starting in fall 2019. He loves reading, drinking coffee, and hiking in the Colorado Rockies. His academic interests include biblical languages and exegesis, theology, philosophy, politics, and economics.