June 15, 2017 by Anders Ingemarson
In a recent Forbes article “Be Compassionate, But Never, Ever, Pity The ‘Forgotten’ Rural Americans” John Tamny comments on a WSJ article “Rural America Is the New ‘Inner City’” (gated) about the plight of Kenton, OH, one of many American towns that has been in decline for decades. He asks two “uncomfortable” questions: “…if opportunity has vanished in Kenton, why has anyone in the town stuck around?” and “if our ancestors managed to cross oceans or heavily armed borders just to get here, why can’t fully legal American citizens transport themselves to where the jobs are in the U.S.?” Mr. Tamny correctly concludes “In short, the ‘crisis’ of modern America isn’t the ‘forgotten’ men and women living in parts of the U.S. bereft of opportunity as much as we have a crisis of bad decisions such that some individuals have chosen to be immobile in a country that constantly rewards those who are restlessly mobile amid endless American abundance.”
Let’s add a few observations.
Whether the number of individuals that choose to be immobile has increased or not is probably up for debate. Historically, more people have always stayed behind than pulled up stakes. Locally and regionally, the impact has varied, but overall, staying put has been the preferred option.
Traditionally, the most common pattern of migration has been for one or more enterprising individuals to leave the farm, hamlet, village, town, or city, either alone or by organizing a group of fellow migrants. Upon arrival in the “promised land”—the new region or country—they find work, and start to send money back “home.” The funds support family members who either can’t or don’t want to leave, and pays for passage for others who are willing to take the plunge. As subsequent waves of migrants arrive, the pattern repeats itself. The funds being sent back provide a safety net for those unable or unwilling to move, and an opportunity to seek greener pastures for those otherwise lacking the means. One could perhaps lament that this allows more individuals to remain immobile, and that some recipients are not deserving of such support. However, as long as the funds are supplied voluntarily, without tax dollars being used, no harm is done to the rest of us.
In the wake of migration, the communities facing the outflow are negatively impacted by the brain drain (it is almost without exception the individuals with the most initiative who are leaving first, further aggravating the local conditions that caused the migration in the first place). Some communities adjust and find a new lease on life through efforts to reverse the causes of the migration: lowering taxes or providing incentives to attract new businesses, and attracting newcomers to make up for those who left by for instance promoting a favorable cost of living. Others, unable or unwilling to change, face decline and slow death. As tragic as this may appear, it is as much a part of a free and vibrant society as corporations declining and dying from not being able to adjust to changes in the marketplace.
Unfortunately, over the past 50 years the notion has been spreading that staying put is a “right,” and if I can’t make a living, that I’m entitled to a living paid for by others. As this view has been taking hold, politicians have been quick to capitalize, offering everything from food stamps to subsidized healthcare to tariffs to prevent people from having to pull up roots. In the latest installment, our President is in the process of living up to his election promises by increasing import duties that supposedly will protect industries and thereby keep declining “rust belt” and other regions on artificial life support.
These programs do nothing but perpetuate and reinforce the hopelessness, emptiness, resentment and entitlement mentality of those unable or unwilling to pull up stakes. It is not a coincidence that many of the afflicted areas have seen a drug epidemic in the past couple of decades—drugs numb the pain of lacking purpose in life and of lacking self-esteem from not being able to provide for yourself and your loved ones.
But more importantly, the view that I have a “right” to be provided for to allow me to stay in the area where I grew up, is morally flawed. An alleged “right” (be provided for to be able to stay) that violates somebody else’s right (forcibly having to pay the bill through taxation or higher prices caused by tariffs) is not and cannot be a right. True rights—individual rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness—do not violate the like rights of others. When they are fully respected and protected, we interact with one another by voluntarily trading value for value—goods, services (including our own work), and immaterial values (love, friendship, etc.)
By all means, if you so choose, trade value for value by supporting with your own hard-earned money or your time those left behind in areas fallen on hard times . They can certainly use the financial and moral encouragement in making the choice to migrate instead of living unhappily ever after. Or invest your resources in revitalizing a blighted area. In exchange for your monetary support or time spent, you may get the satisfaction of seeing someone turning her life around, or an area emerging from the ashes.
But do not further your cause by taking the immoral path of forcing your fellow men to finance government programs with their taxes, or to pay higher prices for goods and services because of tariffs that you supported. Sacrificing others is not the way to support the “forgotten” Americans.