Bob Herbert"s Blind Spot


Each time I read an article by New York Times regular Op Ed page columnist Bob Herbert, I am being told by the author that others must be given portions of my income, via the political process. Herbert seems to be the quintessential welfare statist, one wedded to the doctrine that the government must expropriate and extort from Peter so as to hand some of it over to Paul (and, of course, pay a good deal to its own employees who perform this 'wealth transfer').

What puzzles me is that in none of his articles does Mr. Herbert even consider the possibility that quite a few of those who are on the receiving end of this wealth redistribution policy brought about their own economic demise, or at least contributed to it in significant ways. I personally know that there are folks who do that. Just for starters, my younger daughter has dated several of them (she used to collect what I have come to refer to as "strays"). I have also personally known quite a few people in the course of a now quite long life who have refused to seek out productive work even though they were fully equipped to do so. More pertinently, a friend of mine at Harvard University studies recidivism among violent criminals and has now concluded, despite what she had hoped, that there are innumerable folks who simply will not respond to rehabilitation but want to remain criminals.

I realize that some folks are unlucky, even kept down by the system in one way or another. But how is it that Herbert never, never gives any acknowledgement of the complicity of some in their own bad lot?

My suspicion runs in the direction of Mr. Herbert's being captive of a certain view of human nature. In this view everything that people do is actually just something that happens to them. No one is ever responsible for anything, not the good, nor the bad they do. The world is simply a complicated daisy chain of unstoppable events, started off at the beginning of time and moving along impersonally, ineluctably. Some folks, under this perspective, become economically solvent because that is their fate or lot or destiny'-whatever you wish to call the inevitable outcome to which the process has led in their case. Others, however, become economically destitute'-or at any rate not sufficiently well off'-and this, too, just happens to them with no contribution from their own decisions, thinking, self-direction or whatever you might wish to call it when people act and bring about consequences.

Now in such a world view no one deserves anything, either their good or their bad circumstances. None make any contributions to their lives either of a positive or of a negative sort. Violent criminals, Enron executives, lying politicians, unethical journalists'-yes, even misguided columnists'-are simply being shoved around by impersonal factors to behave as they do and personal responsibility has no place in the process.

What is, of course, paradoxical about Mr. Herbert's evident embrace of this outlook is that he then completely abandons it when it comes to blaming us all for failing to accept it too. And he leaves it aside, also, as he implores everyone to come to the aid of those who have fared ill in this world and blames them all for their refusal to help out.

What Mr. Herbert doesn't see is that the world view of que sera, sera goes all the way down and if the causalities he cares about can never help themselves, neither can anyone else.

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Tibor R. Machan's picture
Columns on STR: 70

Tibor Machan is a professor of business ethics and Western Civilization at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., and recent author of Neither Left Nor Right: Selected Columns (Hoover Institution Press, 2004).  He is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.