Friday, May 30, 2008

A Clash Of Faiths

On one side, the inimitable Michael Gerson,
But compassionate conservatism has come under criticism for a variety of reasons. For some, it is fundamentally at odds with fiscal conservatism -- no social priority is deemed more urgent than balancing the budget. For others, it is a violation of their vision of limited government -- the state's only valid purpose is to uphold markets and protect individual liberty. But by drawing these limits so narrowly, such critics would relegate conservatism to the realm of rejected ideologies: untainted, uncomplicated and ignored. And by leaving great social needs unmet, they would grant liberalism an open field and invite genuine statism.
On the other side, (sort of) free market advocacy from Daniel Larison:
How tiresome it is to hear that “social needs” are unmet because government is not involved in meeting them, or that government must be involved if those needs are, in fact, unmet. If they’re unmet, they’re probably unmet because someone whining in the name of “compassion” forty years ago complained that the government wasn’t doing enough, so the state usurped the proper social functions of existing institutions that have since withered and died from neglect and lack of support, and now all we are left with is recourse to still more government.
A big part of the problem with "compassionate conservativism" is that it was a lie from day one, with perhaps Michael Gerson being the only living person not to have come to terms with that fact. The term represents typical G.W., attempting to depict himself as a centrist who will reinvent the social safety net to help people climb out of poverty, coupled with a promise to dole hundreds of millions (perhaps billions) of federal dollars into religious organizations. He didn't mean the first part and, as far as I can see, for G.W. the second part was solely about getting votes. I've seen no evidence that G.W. cares about the efficacy of vouchers (and in fact "No Child Left Behind" and voucher programs appear calculated to prevent direct comparison of public schools to private schools, by doling out money to private schools while exempting them from NCLB's testing requirements and standards).

But what of Larison's cult of the free market? What social support network is he imagining, flourishing some forty years ago, but that has now disappeared? It's a fiction presented as fact.

That's not to say that the government has not stepped into places where charities, particularly religious charities, once dominated. Counties offer free and discounted medical care that one might have historically received through a hospital founded by a religious group. Poor people get food stamps (or should I say an EBT card) rather than queueing outside of the Salvation Army offices or some other soup kitchen. Housing subsidies and government funded shelters have largely replaced charitable shelters.

But when you look at why this happened, it was due to the failure of private and religious charities to meet the needs of an industrialized society. Giving full respect to the significant charitable efforts made by many people and organizations before the dawn of the so-called "welfare state", there was no glory day when the needs of all of the nation's poor were well-met by charity. Religions and charities did not shutter workhouses and orphanages, in favor of keeping families together. Religions and charities did not bring about universal public education. Religions and charities still do operate hospitals - but for most of us, the bill isn't any smaller than it would be at a private or public hospital, and they would be overwhelmed and bankrupted if they were to open their doors to the nation's poor with no charge and without requesting reimbursement through Medicare and Medicaid. Moreover, the government can administer programs evenly across states or the entire nation, where charities did not and cannot. In short, we're dealing with two issues: The fact that the world Larison depicts as an ideal never existed (and never will), and the fact that society has changed from the days when charities and religious organizations could partially fulfill the needs now served by government.

The question of whether it is better to serve up charity with a religious sermon or a dose of shame, or if it is better to leave charity to hands that can deny relief to people deemed "undeserving" (whether because they're not seen as making a sufficient effort, or because they're of the wrong faith or perhaps even ethnicity) is apart from the question of whether private charities and religions could take the place of public social assistance in a modern industrialized society. They cannot. You want to talk about ending dependence? I'm all ears. But it's a separate issue.

Gerson seems to recognize the failure of non-state actors, arguing that fiscal conservatives, "by leaving great social needs unmet, ... would grant liberalism an open field and invite genuine statism." Where he devolves into the comical is in the idea that the "alternative" is for state and federal governments to tax their citizens then pass the money along to third parties to administer in a "charitable" manner. There's no evidence presented, nor argument given, that this approach saves money, increases efficiency, or reduces dependency.

Larison objects to the continuation of dependency, arguing,
However the program or initiative is designed, it will always be another form of dependency and another means to concentrate power in the state by creating these bonds of dependency on government initiatives. How insulting to listen to someone who has never blinked at proposing spending other people’s money on the problems of people he has never met mock fiscal responsibility, and then claim that those interested in the profoundly moral effort to not pass on our debts to our posterity supposedly believe that balanced budgets are the top “social priority.” What is Michael Gerson’s top social priority? It seems that gratifying his undying need for atoning vicariously through good works that he isn’t doing that are paid for by wealth he isn’t creating in places he will never go is his top priority, and woe betide the moneychangers who block him on the path of righteousness!
Well, a big part of the problem probably starts with turning this into a religious debate, dictated by unseen forces emanating from our WWJD bracelets. The fact is that as long as there have been churches, there have been collection plates. Shall we discuss tithing, which at times and places in history was little different from a tax? What churches offered straw polls to let people decide where and how they spent the collected money? Save for individual efforts and those of small groups, something that cannot take the place of large-scale social programs, this has always been about paying money to third parties who decide if and how it will be expended for the benefit of the poor.

The dichotomy Larison implies - and it's a false dichotomy - is that we have a choice between balancing the budget and providing public assistance to the poor. We can also balance the budget by increasing taxes or cutting other areas of spending. So if we're going to speak of a "profoundly moral effort to not pass on our debts to our posterity", we must ask why the most "moral" solution is to put social spending on the chopping block, while preserving current levels of corporate welfare, military spending, and those provisions of the tax code that are exceedingly favorable to the rich, or instead of raising taxes to cover the difference. Larison argues,
Instead of a supposedly libertarian Christ, Gerson offers us Christ the social worker, which is an appropriation every bit as unpersuasive as the other caricatures he rejects, and the disciples of this social worker have an unerring ability to be extremely annoying.
You can make a strong libertarian case for prioritizing a balanced budget and cutting social welfare benefits first, but spare me any argument that it's dictated or even supported by Christ's teachings.

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