J.D. Vance’s book, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, is a worthwhile read for numerous reasons. It offers its readers insight into the life of a group that has, in recent months and years, gained national attention: poor whites. Social scientists Charles Murray and Robert Putnam (in Coming Apart and Our Kids, respectively) have documented the social disintegration in this group. The substance abuse, domestic violence, low employment, and single parent homes that wrack poor white communities are increasingly common knowledge. Vance puts names and faces to these social issues and, by recounting his first-hand experience, illuminates their implications by tying them to broader themes and questions.
Vance recounts how he escaped the chaos of his upbringing in Kentucky and Ohio to eventually serve as Marine and graduate from Ohio State University and Yale Law School; he now has a bright career in finance in Silicon Valley. Born to a mom who cycled through husbands and boyfriends and struggled with drug addiction, he was ultimately raised by his foul-mouthed, sometimes-violent (yet always loving) grandmother. The book is not just a reflection on Vance's childhood—one that is all-too-typical in Appalachia and those with roots there—but a lament for his culture, one plagued with much distress. Throughout the book, Vance questions the extent to which he can hold his people— “Hillbillies” as he calls them—accountable for their misfortunes. He ultimately decides society’s response to their plight must be to affirm that his people can control their lives and are not helpless victims of their circumstances.
Take Vance’s description of his mother. On one hand, he is sympathetic to her. He acknowledges that the home she grew up in was often unstable and sometimes violent. It’s easy to see how growing up in those conditions might make it more likely that his mother would have a dysfunctional family life herself. On the other hand, Vance notes that his mother’s two siblings managed to establish families and lives of their own that are loving and secure—in spite of having the same background.
Vance evinces a sophisticated understanding of how social forces—poverty, unstable homes, economic downturns—can affect the behaviors of people like his mom. But he does not let her off the hook. He insists that she is responsible for her decisions: to leave his dad, to frequently uproot Vance and his sister around the state to live with her latest romantic interest, or to turn to drugs again and again.
A recurring theme of Vance’s account is his attempt to understand peoples’ lives as the combination of A) social forces beyond their control and B) the cumulative effect of the decisions that they have made. Vance notes that Hillbillies often emphasize the former of these two factors. They are quick to blame their unemployment and drug addiction on the “Obama economy” and “faceless corporations.” They tell themselves that the deck is stacked against them, and, while Vance recognizes that in many ways it is, he argues that they too often use such fatalism to excuse their own bad decisions. At one point in the book, Vance describes the work habits of a co-worker with a pregnant girlfriend at home. Although the co-worker would frequently come to work late and take 30-minute bathroom breaks nearly every hour, he was incredulous when his boss finally told him he was fired. It did not seem to occur to him that his decisions and actions had contributed to his termination.
Vance witnessed firsthand how poverty and unemployment shape people’s lives. But he nevertheless insists that his mom, co-worker, and Hillbillies in general bear at least some moral responsibly for their choices. Glenn Loury, a prominent African American sociologist at Brown, made a similar point in a recent interview when asked about the way that historical injustices continue to have negative effects on inner-city African-American communities.
Loury recognizes that historical and social forces matter. African-Americans still live in the shadow of Jim Crow laws and American racism:
I see the conflict between the heavy hand of history that lies upon all of us. I didn't choose my parents, for example. If I didn't get read to or exposed to a wider vocabulary when my brain was forming, my linguistic acuity might be damaged forever—there's no undoing that. Neither can we undo the stigma of race that comes to us from the 18th and 19th centuries. We are conditioned by our environment and our genetic inheritance and our social context, and yet there's no possibility for morality unless we presume the possibility of agency… The alternative [to affirming individual agency] is a bleak moral landscape for me.
Both Vance and Loury observe how common it is for their communities to emphasize the negative effects of social forces, historical antecedents, and bad policy on their communities, downplaying or ignoring entirely individual moral responsibility. Vance and Loury do not suggest that history, social forces, and policy should be ignored, but instead commit to the notion that moral responsibility requires agency.
This is a critical insight. It is imperative to accept human agency if there is to be any form of accountability. Without accepting agency, it is impossible to praise people for their achievements or to criticize and condemn them for their wrongdoing. If human action is dictated by external factors beyond an individuals control, why is anyone deserving of admiration or recognition for their good deeds? Indeed, this is why that, even before the adoption of the famous M'Naghten Rule, courts have always refused to condemn individuals who, because of mental defects, lack agency. The very existence of criminal law belies the notion that the decisions of entire segments of the citizenry are determined by forces outside their control.
Moreover, as Vance notes in a discussion about his mother’s drug addiction, telling people they lack agency tends to harm, not help, them. After a narcotics anonymous meeting, his mother informs him that her addiction is a disease beyond her control. Vance considers her explanation dubious, struggling to see it as anything other than a way to deflect responsibility for her choices. Upon further research, he finds that the more one thinks their addiction is a disease, the more likely one is to stay addicted. Vance attributes many of the challenges bedeviling his mother, and his community generally, to such “learned helplessness.”
Vance and Loury's insight—that, while we should consider the consequences of social forces, we must recognize individual agency in order to make moral responsibility possible—has application beyond the worlds of the need-ridden black and white communities that Loury and Vance write about. In many ways, well educated, successful people can have the opposite tendency: instead of attributing their current life circumstances to history, luck, and other things outside their control, they consider their success the result of their self-discipline, sound decision-making, and will power. Successful people likely made good decisions in their lives that contributed to their material wellbeing, but perhaps overlook the fact that their parents and grandparents also probably made good decisions that they continue to benefit from, along with other factors.
On some level, this tendency is to be expected. Psychologists describe a similar bias—of attributing others' misbehavior to their personalities but our misbehavior to our circumstances—as the fundamental attribution error. Its name gives some idea of just how common it is. Nevertheless, it is important to understand these tendencies, on the part of rich and poor alike, because it is vital to have an accurate understanding of the balance between agency and social forces.
Each perspective illustrates the insufficiency of using only one element—social force or agency—in examining life outcomes. Vance’s book works towards disabusing readers of this binary narrative.
One of the most powerful elements of Vance’s book is the way he interweaves these two perspectives: circumstance and decision. Indeed, his book is in some ways a celebration of the way in which both of these make us uniquely human. He celebrates the salutary effects his grandmother had on his life, the negative burden of his mother’s actions, and also his own ability to navigate between them.
This is a point that everyone—rich and poor, black and white, layperson and policymaker—should remember. Policymakers need to understand how historical forces and policy choices affect people’s lives and decisions. But they must also affirm the agency of individuals. Not only because doing so is likely to nudge people toward making good decisions, but also because it reminds policymakers to be humble. Progressive policies that teach people that they are helpless victims may actually harm them. Instead, public policies should exalt and hold up as examples people from marginalized communities, like J.D. Vance, who demonstrate that we need not be victims of our circumstances, but instead can rise above them. Hillbilly Elegy raises more questions than it answers, but that makes it no less insightful. The questions it asks—about the effects of culture, about the importance of individual agency, about the limitations of policy intervention—are ones we would all do well to continue to ponder in the days and years to come.
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Kian Hudson is a graduate of Yale Law School, a former Clerk of the Honorable Judge Diane Sykes of the Seventh Circuit, and an Associate at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher.
Alexandra Hudson is a graduate of the London School of Economics, a former research associate at The Federalist Society, and most recently Lead Education Policy Analyst at the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty.