One distressing departure the GOP has taken from traditional conservatism doesn’t concern immigration or foreign policy, but agency. I’m not talking about deciding which government agency to shut down, but rather the idea we can, and do, act and make our own choices.
The opposite notion has long been purveyed by the left, which deems us largely the sum of our circumstances. If we aren’t “rich,” we must be “underprivileged” — and government must set that right. That’s not to deny success comes more easily to some of us, or that we all need help sometimes. It is to say actions have consequences, and that no matter our circumstances, we can make matters better or worse.
So when Donald Trump promises to make us happy, healthy and wealthy again, liberals’ first thought must be to sue him for copyright infringement. Meanwhile, many conservatives ask: Yes, government often gets in our way, but when did we decide it’s up to Washington to fix everything wrong in our lives?
There could not have been better timing, then, for J.D. Vance’s new book, “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis.”
Vance grew up among erstwhile Kentuckians in Middletown, Ohio. His mother was a drug addict, serially married and rarely reliable. He was largely raised by his foul-mouthed and fiercely protective grandmother. They were not technically poor, but they so mismanaged their money that they may as well have been.
By his own account Vance was also headed for a dead end. But he improved his grades; delayed college to enlist in the Marine Corps, which straightened him out; graduated from Ohio State University and Yale Law School; and now lives a fairly charmed life on the West Coast.
The point of his memoir, however, is neither to gloat about his success nor to denigrate those he left behind. Ultimately, it’s to explain why his story, which should be exceptional only in the details (Yale, Silicon Valley), is practically a fairy tale.
“I once ran into an old acquaintance at a Middletown bar who told me that he had recently quit his job because he was sick of waking up early,” Vance writes. “I later saw him complaining on Facebook about the ‘Obama economy’ and how it had affected his life. I don’t doubt that the Obama economy has affected many, but this man is assuredly not among them.”
Earlier in the book, he recalls a co-worker in a tile warehouse. The man was 19 with a pregnant girlfriend; the warehouse employed both. But not for long: Both were chronically absent, and rarely productive when they were present. First the girlfriend was fired, then her beau.
“When it happened,” Vance recalls, “he lashed out at his manager: ‘How could you do this to me? Don’t you know I’ve got a pregnant girlfriend?’” Perhaps someone should have asked him the same thing.
“The most important lesson of my life is not that society failed to provide me with opportunities,” Vance writes, pointing to his “entirely adequate” public schools and financial aid. “These programs are far from perfect, but to the degree that I nearly succumbed to my worst decisions … the fault lies almost entirely with factors outside the government’s control.”
By all means, let’s fix what’s wrong with government. But we will not improve our lives, much less make America great, waiting for an agency other than our own.