Acton Institute Powerblog

Robert Reich at the Nativity: ‘Try Something Useful!’

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In 2012, nearly $39 billion was spared to American givers via the charitable tax deduction, $33 billion of which went to the richest 20 percent of Americans. If that sounds like a lot, consider that it’s associated with roughly $316 billion in charitable donations.

Yet for Professor Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor under President Clinton, much of this generosity is not devoted to, well, “real charities.” His beef has something to do with the wealthy’s obsession with “culture places” — the opera, the symphony, the museum — realms that, in Reich’s opinion, are undeserving of what should be an allocation to his own pet projects. “I’m all in favor of supporting fancy museums and elite schools,” he writes, “but face it: These aren’t really charities as most people understand the term.”

The picking and choosing follows in turn, descending farther and farther into the typical terrain of progressive materialism — focusing excessively on surface-level transfers of this particular dollar into that particular hand and lambasting those rebellious Makers and Givers for getting it all wrong.

Though the rant itself is rather routine, particularly for the likes of Reich, Kevin Williamson has a response that cuts through the posturing with noteworthy bite and brilliance. “At its root,” Williamson notes, “this is not about tax revenue or the woeful state of the federal cash-flow statement. This is about envy and its cousin, covetousness.”

Such a claim does, of course, seek to unearth one’s motives, and as such, Williamson may be brushing those particular strokes in excess. What is not left up to interpretation, however, and what feeds such a perception, is Reich’s domineering preference for his own set of distributive methods and the shortsighted materialism that steers it.

Whether such a stilted imagination is due to envy is interesting. What is more strikingly evident is the way his progressive ideology about wealth, poverty, and human flourishing so evidently trickles into the everyday, mistrusting and downplaying private investment and generosity of all varieties outside of clear-cut redistributionist schemes.

On this, Williamson cuts to the core, catching something crucial that colors aplenty:

Professor Reich is writing in a very old tradition, one that is especially familiar to Catholics: Why spend money on beauty when there is necessity? Protestants have a long and rich tradition of abusing the Catholic Church for its supposed wealth — why not auction off the Sistine Chapel and give the money to the poor? The egalitarian liberal’s equivalent: Why incentivize donations to Princeton when we could be spending that money on food stamps? I like to imagine Robert Reich at the Nativity: “Gold? Frankincense? Myrrh? Try something useful!”

…Progressives know that they will always enjoy disproportionate influence in the public sector, but they are vexed that there exist large streams of money that are, for the moment, utterly outside their control. They convince others — and themselves, probably — that they are driven by compassion, but they are in fact driven by envy: Note Barack Obama’s insistence that tax rates on the wealthy should be raised even if doing so produced no fiscal benefit — it’s just “the right thing to do,” he said, necessary “for purposes of fairness.” The battle hymn of “Nobody needs that much money!” has a silent harmony line: “And I get to decide how much is enough!”

And alas, for those who view the whole of human progress as requiring something richer and more complex than this money in that pocket, Reich’s argument isn’t even about effectiveness. It’s about allocation.

Unfortunately, this diminishing of the whole of human life into one’s personal buckets of “poor” and “rich” is not all that unique. And the limiting of stewardship and generosity from the eyes of government that follows demonstrates, yet again, that pesky irony of progressivism: its propensity to take on the image of its own materialistic critiques. When the perfume is spilt with love and sacrifice, bearing obvious positive fruits, tangible or otherwise, let us perceive who throws the stink.

If the rich don’t give what the gods of distribution demand, then “thievery!” of the masses is somehow manifest. Yet when they do give, in clear and undeniable abundance, performing acts of generosity freely and openly, whether to the opera or to the homeless shelter, the State will inevitably feel threatened, whether by form or by function.

Then, as we see with the reactions of Reich and many others, the hands behind the real systemic thievery will begin to warm their palms.

Joseph Sunde is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as The Federalist, First Things, The City, The Christian Post, The Stream, Charisma News, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.

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