Back when Lester Maddox was governor of Georgia, in the late 1960s, there was a riot at the state prison. Reporters asked him what he planned to do about the conditions that caused the trouble. Maddox rejected the entire premise of the question. "There's nothing wrong with our prison system," he said. "We just don't have a very good class of prisoners anymore."

I've told that story to quite a few audiences, and it always gets a laugh. What I never go on to admit is that, in all honesty, I think there's a kernel of wisdom in it. Prison inmates are entitled to decent food and shelter, and when they don't get it, sometimes they cause trouble. But sometimes they cause trouble because they are troublemakers. That's why they are there.

This isn't just a point about the correctional system. It's a point about the whole array of public social service institutions in this country. When something goes wrong, our first assumption is that the institution has failed its clients. To believe anything else would mean "blaming the victim," which virtually everyone in public life these days has been taught to believe is a sin. Sometimes it is a sin- -sometimes the rules and the management are the fundamental problem. It doesn't make much sense to blame squalid conditions at a public hospital on the conduct of the patients. They are sick. The hospital is supposed to take care of them.

My rebuttal is this: If, in our distaste for blaming the victim, we treat public institutions as the automatic culprit of first resort, there are many social problems in 21st-century America we will never understand. The consumer of any social service is entitled to justice and respect. He isn't entitled to a free ride.

Occasionally, in a mischievous mood, I start a conversation by asking why editorial writers and commentators keep saying over and over again that our schools are failing their students. Why not the other way around? Why doesn't anybody argue that when test scores rank near the bottom, it's the pupils who are letting the schools down? I'm always careful to smile when I say this. If I appear to be serious, I would quickly get a reputation as a Lester Maddox know-nothing: "If these kids can't do the job, let's get 'em the hell out of there and find some who can."

Maybe you laughed at that one, too. But I didn't mean it entirely as a joke. What are kids supposed to believe when they go from kindergarten all the way through 12th grade hearing incessantly that the teachers have a sacred responsibility to educate them, and that if a high school keeps graduating people who can't read very well, it ought to be closed down? I'm pretty sure what I'd believe: that I was little more than a passive receptacle for knowledge, and that if I came out empty, it was somebody else's fault--not mine.

Bizarre as it may sound now, common opinion in America for much of the 20th century held the educational process to be a mutual enterprise for which school and student both held some responsibility. Test scores, of course, varied enormously from one area to another. Kids who lived in affluent suburbs tested well. Kids who came from the wrong side of the tracks tested badly. Everyone expected that. No school system could be asked to assume 100 percent responsibility for overcoming the burden of demographics.

The rules of demographics have not been repealed in the decades since then. We just choose to ignore them, and to assume that if a school deep in the inner city turns in consistently low test scores, that's the fault of someone in the educational system: a bad teacher, an incompetent administrator, a greedy union boss, a lazy bureaucrat down at headquarters.

Deep down, most of us know it's more complicated than that. When a child passes through 12 years of school unable to absorb what she is being taught, much of the fault has to lie somewhere outside the system. Parents have a lot to do with it. Peers are part of it. The whole popular culture is part of it. All I would ask is that if we wish to apportion responsibility fairly on this issue, we try not to leave the individual students out altogether. Why not talk about them the way we used to--as legitimate moral actors, capable not only of learning but of accepting a mandate to work and to show results.

What's true of education is equally true of poverty and welfare issues. So many of the professionals who work in these fields have ceased to talk about the disadvantaged as independent moral beings with wills and responsibilities of their own. Instead of subjects, the poor become objects. Or even pawns.

A couple of years ago, I was asked to speak at a symposium held to discuss "Inside Game, Outside Game," a new book written by David Rusk, the urban affairs consultant and former mayor of Albuquerque. I was glad to do it, because Rusk is an intelligent and provocative thinker. Anything he says is worth listening to.

And yet, as I read the book, I found myself more and more disturbed. I kept finding sentences like this: "A chain reaction begins in the community--crime and delinquency rise, alcoholism and drug addiction increase, schools fall into decline, neighborhoods deteriorate, unemployment and welfare dependency increase, and social meltdown begins."

Or this one, in reference to the Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St. Louis: "Fear and violence ruled the dimly lit hallways and stalked dirt expanses littered with broken guns."

All true. Ultimately, however, I realized what was bothering me. Something was wrong here, semantically and morally. The subjects of the sentences weren't people. They were concepts: crime and delinquency, fear and violence. The inhabitants of the inner city were being treated as moral bystanders to whom bad things somehow kept happening. And the solution was to move them out--break up the ghetto and parcel out its residents in small increments to middle-class suburbia. Nowhere were these people being invested with the ability to make choices and live their lives in a responsible way.

I feel a little guilty picking on David Rusk here. He's far from the worst offender. But these examples point up the refusal of even the brightest social policy thinkers to come within miles of any statement that might somehow be construed as "blaming the victim."

You might want to argue that the passage of the 1996 federal welfare law signals an important change in this attitude. Maybe it does. But it's one law created at the federal level. Down on the ground, in the majority of America's state and local governments, I would argue, timidity about "blaming the victim" still reigns unchallenged. To me, that's discouraging.

It was in such a mood of discouragement a few weeks ago that I picked up a copy of Heather Mac Donald's new book, "The Burden of Bad Ideas." Many of the essays in it were familiar to me. I had read them when they first appeared in City Journal, the quarterly publication to which she is a contributing editor.

But I was not prepared for the impact of reading Mac Donald's work collected in a single place. It is very powerful stuff, depressing and exhilarating at the same time. It is depressing because it traces the urban policy tragedies that result from failure to treat disadvantaged people and social service clients as moral actors with responsibilities as well as rights. It is exhilarating because it shows that moral language has not disappeared from the social policy scene altogether. Someone is taking the trouble to keep the professionals honest--or at least is trying to.

The subjects of this book range from public health to foster care, from homelessness to high school curriculum, but every essay ultimately lands on the same point: A system terrified of blaming the victim is a system that can never solve the most difficult social problems.

Mac Donald tells how the mindless paternalism of federal law and judicial intervention has turned disability recipients into permanent wards of the state, long after the episodes that caused the disability have been forgotten. She describes a school program for teenage mothers in which the girls are relieved of the responsibility to visit the kids during the day, so that, in the words of the assistant principal, "they can have some of the immaturity and giddiness of being a teen." She tracks the hundreds of millions of dollars New York City spends each year on kinship foster care payments to relatives who are not required to meet even the most minimal obligations to the children placed in their custody.

Nearly all of these chilling episodes end with a little Heather Mac Donald homily. "We must once again start to draw moral distinctions in our public discourse." Or: "Unwillingness to render judgment on self- destructive behavior is part of a moral climate that has done real and lasting harm to the poor." Or: "If you insulate people from the consequences of their own self-destructive behavior, you're going to get a whole lot more of it."

If you think this sort of argument might attract enemies, you are right. The Village Voice calls Mac Donald a sadist. The Welfare Reform Network says Mac Donald's essays "reek of the misdirected moral indignation that characterizes the policies of the Giuliani administration." The Greenwich Village Gazette ran an article last year headlined "Heather Mac Donald, you're the one on crack!" and pictured her with a swastika on her shoulder.

So far as I can tell, however, nobody has successfully challenged her central facts or refuted her arguments. Of course, I may think that because I agree with them. Nothing is really objective in the realm of social policy: Any judgment about the efficacy of a particular program, regardless of how many studies or experiments have been performed, depends to a great extent on the values and perspectives of the person doing the evaluating. No array of statistics about teen pregnancy or homelessness will convince the social-policy left that blaming the victim is justifiable. No set of anecdotes portraying the courage and decency of the underclass will convince Heather Mac Donald (or me, for that matter) that welfare paternalism is a good idea.

But even if you find Mac Donald unconvincing--even if you think she is a sadist--you have to give her credit on one point. She compels everyone who reads her to treat social welfare questions as old- fashioned moral questions--not just tactical or administrative ones. If that's all she accomplishes--and I'm sure it won't be--she has done something very important.