[Murray’s] left-wing critics in the blogosphere have reverted to crude 1970s economic determinism: It’s all the fault of lost jobs. People who talk about behavior are blaming the victim. Anybody who talks about social norms is really saying that the poor are lazy.
Murray’s critics accuse him of essentially blaming the victim: the social breakdown he described may be real enough, they allow, but it’s an inevitable consequence of an economic system that Republicans have rigged to benefit the rich. In the liberal view, there’s nothing wrong with America’s working class that can’t be solved by taxing the wealthy and using the revenue to weave a stronger safety net.
Putting aside the question of who’s right, I think it’s accurate that folks who identify with the left tend to be skeptical of cultural or behavioral explanations for social problems, typically regarding them as a form of victim blaming. And given that conservatives often seem particularly concerned with cultivating a “culture of personal responsibility,” it’s not particularly surprising that such explanations are interpreted as entailing the view that the badly-off are, well, “personally responsible” for their plight. But this is, I think, a mistake.
When you’re talking about variations in outcomes within a socioeconomic group—about why some individuals seem to have done exceptionally better or worse than others similarly situated—it may make sense to talk about individual choice and responsibility. But when you’re talking about population level trends, this won’t do: If you want to know why an entire group of people are choosing to behave in a certain way, and especially why they’re collectively behaving conspicuously differently than they used to, the explanation is necessarily going to be something exogenous to any individual’s idiosyncratic choice. Whatever you think of 21st century American bourgeois mores, there aren’t many reports of Aztec royalty or !Kung bushmen spontaneously adopting them; people read from the locally available scripts. At the group level, “choice” isn’t an adequate explanation for anything, because it’s the pattern of choices that stands in need of explanation.
One hypothesis may be that certain macro-level changes are partially explained by a cultural shift away from norms of strong individual responsibility. But this is not at all the same as saying that we’re individually responsible for the cultural norms we absorb. Sometimes we arguably are—as when we opt to seek out and join a particular subculture—but more often we’re not. I didn’t decide to grow up speaking English. If you and your peers acquired cultural norms conducive to health, prosperity, stable families, law-abidingness, and so on, odds are you had the good fortune to grow up in an environment where those norms were both espoused and modeled—and you can scarcely claim responsibility for that. It is at least possible, however, that an important component of this salutary body of norms involves talking and acting as though individuals are responsible for how they fare on these various dimensions, whether or not this is true. It is false that economic success is a sign of predestined salvation, but if you believe Max Weber, it was economically advantageous for Calvinists to hold this false belief.
Fear of “victim blaming,” then, is not a particularly good reason to steer clear of cultural or behavioral accounts of social pathology. As far as any particular individual is concerned, cultural context is as much an immutable given as economic context. But there’s another motive that Douthat and Brooks both hint at: If you assume culture is not wholly determined by the economic and political facts, then there’s not a whole lot politics can do to remedy social problems rooted in culture, without resorting to some pretty grossly illiberal interventions. Invoking culture, then, can look like an excuse for not doing anything. And here, again, one can imagine the collectively advantageous belief being the false one. That is, it may be that serious social problems are primarily a function of culture, and therefore resistant to political or economic remedy, but that we will not be politically motivated to get the modest improvement achievable by economic means unless we falsely believe that economics are paramount and culture insignificant or epiphenomenal. I’m not convinced this is true, mind you, but it’s a possibility with a neat symmetry.