Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Conservative Naivete

Conservatives are supposed to be the people who take seriously the reality of humanity's fallen nature in the world. But sometimes they exhibit the most naive forms of thinking about human nature and behavior. And it often happens when they begin to wax eloquently about the wonders of the free market.

Somehow today I found myself on the website of The Claremont Institute, a right wing thinktank. I was reading there a book(s) review by Christopher D. Levenick. He is a writer for The Claremont Institute and the American Enterprise Institute, which is another right-wing think tank. (For context, it was recently revealed that American Enterprise Institute was offering $10,000 to scientists who would write articles challenging global warming, so you know the kind of "thinking" they do.)

In any case Levenick was reviewing five books by progressive articles: A review of Our Endangered Values: America’s Moral Crisis, by Jimmy Carter; The Left Hand of God: Taking Back Our Country from the Religious Right, by Michael Lerner; Why the Christian Right Is Wrong: A Minister’s Manifesto for Taking Back Your Faith, Your Flag, Your Future, by Robin Meyers; The Hijacking of Jesus: How the Religious Right Distorts Christianity and Promotes Prejudice and Hate, by Dan Wakefield; and God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It, by Jim Wallis. In one brief article he managed to review, dismiss, and dispatch them all.

Here is a quote that caught my eye:
Take the Religious Left's approach to poverty. To their great credit, these writers are dead serious about feeding the hungry and clothing the naked. Unfortunately, however, they perceive this obligation as primarily and properly the work of government. Carter speaks for the group when he alleges that "[i]n efforts to reach out to the poor, alleviate suffering, provide homes for the homeless...government office-holders and not church members were more likely to assume responsibility and be able to fulfill the benevolent missions." Little acknowledgment is made of the private sector's role in creating affluence, or of the fact that a zealous redistribution of present assets will inhibit the creation of future wealth. Yet these errors of practical economics are of less consequence than the grave theological misapprehension beneath them. The challenge and the burden of almsgiving are and ought to be personal. Christian charity does not consist of petitioning the state to redress economic grievances. Rather, it calls upon the individual believer to comfort the afflicted. An ethic geared primarily toward government undermines the crucial sense of personal responsibility for the least of one's brethren. True charity, like true faith, must be voluntary if it is to be efficacious.
"The challenge and burden of almsgiving are and ought to be personal." Has Levenick never heard of the biblical prophets? They were not addressing their scathing words of criticism to individuals but to the state, and they were calling on the state to act with justice towards the poor.

But beyond the shallow understanding of Judeo-Christian tradition, Levenick betrays a naive understanding of human nature. Out of the goodness of their hearts individuals, of course, should contribute financially for the well-being of others. And in a perfect Garden of Eden universe there would be no great disparities of wealth because those who have benefited and prospered the most would willingly and voluntarily level the playing field themselves. But we don't live in the Garden of Eden. We live in a world where many are happily selfish and where political and philosophical systems celebrate this selfishness as God's will and nature's destiny. It's social Darwinism, the survival of the fittest.

The worldview that Levinick pines for was the reality of America during the Industrial Revolution and the days of robber barons and children working in sweatshops. The government played a minimal role in the lives of everyday Americans and companies were free to take and plunder and exploit. For many Americans charity was all that stood between them and extreme poverty. It wasn't enough.

And it all came crashing down in the Great Depression, when all but the very wealthy suffered greatly. It was a defining moment in American history when a collective national decision was made to vastly increase the size and scope of the government in order to make sure that there was a check on unbridled corporate power and a social safety net that protected all Americans from the ravages of deep poverty. It wasn't perfect, and in subsequent years the safety net was further expanded in the form of Welfare (which also wasn't perfect), but it was an enormous evolutionary advance in thinking from the idea that charity is a matter of personal choice. And it was a move made necessary because many (most?) of us will not willingly choose to care and give enough to make a difference in our world.

Now, we are experiencing another enormous shift in the balance of power in our world with the expansion of the reach of global corporations to follow the "bottom line" and create and destroy jobs at will all around the globe, while at the same time corporate CEO's and executives are raking in obscene sums of money. Personal charity can't begin to make a dent in the incredible needs of dislocated workers, not to mention the environmental damage being done. Nor can it address the corruption of companies like Enron or the practices of companies that hide their wealth "offshore" so they can avoid paying taxes.

Human nature is often not pretty. And the only real check on all of this brutish behavior is a strong government that answers to the people. We need our government to protect us from the crimes of corporations. We need our government to redistribute wealth, to expect and require that those who have benefited the most will contribute to the poorest among us. Because they will not freely choose to do it. We need our government to call on all of us to make sacrifices for the good of the country, the environment, and the world.

I have no illusions that government is immune to the same corrupting influences as companies. It too is made up of individuals who can be incredibly incompetent and/or corrupt. The current Administration is a perfect case study. But that is why our founding fathers created three co-equal branches of government, because they took seriously the reality of human nature. We need the branches of our government to do their jobs and check and and challenge one another.

But we need our entire government to do for us what no one of us can do as individuals, alone or collectively. And it's precisely because we know what happens when we rely just on the charity of individuals. You would think that a conservative would know this.


Anonymous said...

When you give the government money, it mostly uses it on itself.
It is a huge bureaucracy.

The government is incredibly inefficient as a source of charity or aid to those who need it.
Look at how FEMA handled the gulf disaster.

I believe that faith based charities are doing a great job.
Food pantries, homeless misssions, habitat for humanity, Brethren disater relief...
These charities are funded with personal, business, corporate, and church donations. They do better without the government involvement.
(less paperwork, more good work)

Also, none of the conservative evangelical Christians I know are rich. Yet they volunteer and donate until it hurts. Please don't badmouth them.


liberal pastor said...


Thanks for your reply. I do not believe that I was badmouthing evangelical Christians in this post. I was challenging the reasoning of a conservative writer who is paid, probably very well, to shill for a conservative, free-market perspective. And I certainly agree that faith-based charities do great work.

My point was that faith-based charities cannot possibly meet every need. Our country recognized that when FDR signed into law Social Security in 1935. Prior to the advent of Social Security retirees were on their own when they left work, and it was up to families and faith-based charities to keep them out of poverty. Yet it is a fact that millions of Americans lived out their retirement years in poverty. Charity could not fill the void.

Social Security was and is an enormous success. It guaranteed that no senior citizen in this country would ever die in poverty. It is an enormous federal bureaucracy that efficiently delivers funds to millions of people every month. It delivers the kind of service that no charity could match. Would you, Dave, like to dismantle SS and replace it with private charity? Would you like your church to take on the task of supporting all of its senior citizens? I wouldn't.

There are some enormous and genuine needs charity cannot meet. It is my belief that there are those people, like the writer of the article, who know this and don't really care. They advocate dismantling the government (except for the military) and getting it out of the way of the free market. They know perfectly well that this would result in massive inequalities in our country. It would be "survival of the fittest:" those that are wealthy deserve it and those that are not don't. I believe we need a strong government to make sure this doesn't happen.

Regarding your example of FEMA, I would remind you that under the leadership of President Clinton and FEMA director James Lee Witt, FEMA was considered a highly effective agency. Witt came to his job with extensive experience in disaster-response management. He hired other people with similar experience and FEMA was widely hailed as a model federal program, again, doing a job on a federal scale that no charity could match.

But when President Bush was elected he replaced Witt and the entire senior staff with a bunch of political hacks who had no experience in disaster management. When Katrina hit we saw first hand what happens when we have a person (the President) in charge of government who doesn't really believe that government has a valid role to play in our lives. You get corruption, mismanagement, and millions suffer the consequences.

Charities have an important role to play in filling gaps in need, but I think that sometimes we forget how much we depend on government to deliver services like SS, Medicaid and Medicare, all enormous bureaucracies, and we forget how well they actually do it. We hear so much bad-mouthing of government. What we need, I believe, is to make sure that those who are always bad-mouthing the role of government are not the ones who are running it.

ProgressiveChurchlady said...

Charities, faith-based initiatives, and the people who volunteer or work for them do great works of service and compassion. No one challenges this. This work is transformative when it is done on a personal level both for the giver and the recipient and whatever government can do, this would should not cease. I am who I am because I volunteer.

However, make no mistake, government can do the greatest good for the greatest number of people! When government works best, it is not defending itself but it is helping others. After years of trying to determine what the basic difference between political party philosophies is I still come to the same conclusion as I did years ago. Those who favor a strong federal government see government as a tool for helping others and shifting wealth to see that all people live in dignity. Those who want to limit government believe that government can not be transformative of the lives of individuals in a positive way. I think this is a very sad view of government and if you look back over the history administrations of "small government" leaders, you can clearly see how this has played itself out.

When talking about how to help the poor, weak, suffering, etc. it is not an "either/or" question, it is a both! We need both government AND non-profits to do this work. There is much work to be done!

I whole-heartedly agree with Liberalpastor that when "small government" operates, Social Darwinism occurrs. Don't we as people of faith value human life and dignity more than this? Our faith must inform our politics as Christians and this is what the life of Jesus was all about--making sure government helped people rather than oppressed them.