Political theorist Joel Schwartz's new book is required reading for anyone seriously concerned with the poor. It is an elegant example of political philosophy applied to an eminently practical problem. Schwartz explains how early 20th century moral reformers such as Jane Addams and Walter Rauschenbusch argued against personal moral reformation as an essential part of overcoming poverty. Virtue's transformation from a responsibility of the individual to a by-product of social policy led eventually to the welfare crisis of the last half-century. Echoing Alexis de Tocqueville, Schwartz concludes that, "the promotion of virtue is not exclusively—perhaps not even primarily—a matter for public policy."
But what place do political obligations have in helping the poor develops as citizens? Perhaps an analogy with Aristotle's democracy, the rule of the many or the poor, might be applicable. Aristotle advised that the poor learn, and practice, virtue by contributing to the common good. The poor today could contribute to military successes through participation in the army or navy. In the war on terrorism, any number of informal security functions, such as patrolling strategically important areas, might be performed by our urban poor. In return, their fellow citizens might treat them as equals, capable of assuming responsibility.
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This article appeared in the Fall 2001 issue of the Claremont Review of Books