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The Road to the Middle Class: A Manifesto

by Christopher Chantrill
January 01, 2005 at 12:30 pm

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BACK in the nineteenth century, before we learned to love them, the poor had to struggle their way up from indigence on their own. They built a sturdy road to the middle class with enthusiastic Christianity, a dogged pursuit of education, a web of mutual-aid associations, and a respect for the law.

But the elites of the time were unimpressed, and declared that they could do better.

  • They attacked the middle class tradition of law and its celebration of property, calling it a mask for power.

  • They attacked middle class religion, calling it superstition and bigotry.

  • They ruined middle-class education, replacing a healthy and diverse system with a one-size-fits-all government monopoly that fails to educate about one third of its charges.

  • They annihilated the vibrant culture of mutual-aid, the web of benevolent and mutual fraternal associations and friendly societies that was the great pride of the lower middle class in the nineteenth century.

They called their creation the welfare state.

The welfare state was built for a great and noble purpose: to raise the industrial poor up from misery to a decent standard of living. In this strict material sense, it has been a great success. But it was not achieved without cost. As economist Robert William Fogel has written: “such problems as drug addiction, alcoholism, births to unmarried teenage girls, rape, the battery of women and children, broken families, violent teenage death, and crime are generally more severe today than they were a century ago.” Theodore Dalrymple has described in Life at the Bottom how this looks to a physician in an inner-city hospital in the British midlands.

The welfare state has certainly rained material benefits upon the poor. But it has robbed them of their birthright, the pride of independence, to be able to echo Corin in the Forest of Arden: “I earn that I eat, get that I wear, owe no man hate, envy no man’s happiness.”

In his The Fourth Great Awakening and the Future of Egalitarianism, Fogel warns his fellow liberals that the moral collapse of the poor is going to cost them. Unless they act promptly to correct the “maldistribution of spiritual resources” that afflicts the poor, others will step in and do it their way. Fogel calls for a program to provide the poor in spirit with spiritual values such as a “sense of purpose,” a “sense of benevolence,” a “capacity for self-education,” “a sense of discipline,” and to give egalitarians a future.

Do the poor need “a sense of purpose?” They could go with mega-church preacher Rick Warren’s A Purpose-Driven Life or attend one of the 3,000 Pentecostal churches in New York City ( a new one opens every three weeks). Secular elitists stigmatize enthusiastic Christians as superstitious bigots.

Do the poor need a “capacity for self-education?” They could support the home-school or the school-choice movement. Many of them already do, but elite Democrats are standing in the school-house door defending the status quo.

Do the poor need a “sense of benevolence?” Why, back in the nineteenth century, the poor joined mutual-aid associations—the Oddfellows, the Elks, and the Moose—in their millions. Then the left came along and killed the mutual-aid movement by nationalizing benevolence into the welfare state.

Do the poor need a “sense of discipline?” But the liberal Sixties generation has spent a lifetime marginalizing “discipline” and defining deviancy down. They should be in charge of helping the poor with their discipline problems?

Is the elite perhaps a little overqualified for the job of fighting a war on spiritual inequality? In the nineteenth century the poor built the road to the middle class on their own with faith, mutual aid, education, and by learning to live under law. Their program produced a balanced combination of material progress and spiritual growth, and it still does. Why mess with it?

Christopher Chantrill blogs at www.roadtothemiddleclass.com.

Buy his Road to the Middle Class.

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