Here’s the key assumption in Michael Gerson’s piece from last week, “The Libertarian Jesus”:
Private compassion cannot replace Medicaid or provide AIDS drugs to millions of people in Africa for the rest of their lives. In these cases, a role for government is necessary and compassionate — the expression of conservative commitments to the general welfare and the value of every human life.
Does this mean that there is no role or never a role for government? No. But that role is one of last and temporary resort. The dichotomy that Gerson draws from one side (and many libertarians draw from another) is false.
Gerson also misunderstands the import of Coburn’s claims that compassion cannot be coerced, “that true giving and compassion require sacrifice by the giver.” The divide between government programs and individual charity isn’t a public/private distinction, but rather a political/moral distinction, where the moral element may sometimes but not always necessitate political action. Poverty is simply not morally equatable with slavery or abortion.
First, from the main text, “The holy art of ‘giving for Jesus’ sake’ ought to be much more strongly developed among us Christians. Never forget that all state relief for the poor is a blot on the honor of your Savior.”
And second, from a footnote, “It is perfectly true that if no help is forthcoming from elsewhere the state must help. We may let no one starve from hunger as long as bread lies molding in so many cupboards. And when the state intervenes, it must do so quickly and sufficiently.”
With whom does the primary responsibility for care for the poor reside? Answer that question, and you can properly relate the political and moral claims regarding poverty.
Sure to be a significant issue in the presidential campaign going forward, the question of immigration reform continues to divide otherwise like-minded religious folks. Mirror of Justice sage Michael Scaperlanda penned an article on the subject for First Things in February. A raft of letters upset with what the writers deemed Scaperlanda’s unreasonably lenient view toward illegal immigrants followed in the May issue (not accessible to non-subscribers), along with an article-length exchange between Scaperlanda and attorney William Chip. Scaperlanda’s initial article as well as part of the subsequent debate revolves around statements made by Catholic bishops on the subject.
Scaperlanda wants to see tighter borders in the sense of eliminating illegal immigration, but he also advocates a path to citizenship for currently illegal residents as well as a significant expansion of immigration quotas. Chip thinks large numbers of immigrants depress American wages and observes that most illegal migrants (specifically, Mexicans) are gainfully employed in their native country and not as desperately poor as they are sometimes portrayed.
Both Chip and Scaperlanda make valid points. The former on the possibility of enforcing the law:
The specter of mass arrests and deportations is a red herring. Approximately 500,000 aliens legally cross the border every day. They come to shop or to sightsee, to attend university, to conduct business, to work for an embassy, or to fill a temporary job. If we are to enjoy the benefits of these international visits without being overwhelmed by overstayers, it should be obvious that we cannot depend on the “hard power” of arrest and deportation except as a last resort.
We depend instead on the “soft power” of allowing legal visitors the means of a comfortable but temporary stay (including free emergency medical care if they cannot afford to pay for it) while withholding from them the means of taking up a comfortable permanent residence. Denying aliens who are not eligible for permanent residence the opportunity to hold a regular job, to drive a car, to draw nonemergency public benefits, and so forth is such an effective deterrent to breaking the law that 99.8 percent of aliens who enter the country each year return home of their own accord.
And Scaperlanda (in his response to the letters):
One commonly held myth is that illegal immigrants have cut in line ahead of others who are patiently waiting their turn to immigrate to the United States. In reality, no line exists for the vast majority of illegal entrants. The United States grants five thousand immigrant employment visas annually to low-skilled workers worldwide. Currently, we have more than ten million illegal immigrants residing in the United States. If they lined up today, and if we allotted all five thousand spots to Mexico and Central America, the one millionth would be eligible to receive a visa in the year 2208, and the ten millionth in 3008.
But the key question on which the debate hinges, it seems to me, is whether the United States possesses the economic capacity (and hence, for Christians and others who share a common moral view, responsibility) to sustain large numbers of immigrants. On this point, Scaperlanda finds that the evidence suggests that the answer is affirmative. I’m inclined to agree.
A fight broke out this week between non-profit groups over fundraising. While not in direct competition for donor dollars, the U.S. Sportsmen’s Alliance expressed its displeasure with Meijer, Inc. for participating in a fundraising event with the Humane Society of the United States. The program was set up to contribute money to a support Foreclosure Pets Fund, designed to give support to pet owners facing foreclosure.
Meijer suspended the program after fielding complaints from the Alliance that the chain was cooperating with an anti-hunting organization. What does pet foreclosure have to do with anti-hunting? An Alliance statement gets at the crux of the issue, pointing out, “The money donated to the HSUS through this promotion, while not going directly to its anti-hunting campaign, will free up money from the organization’s general fund that can be used to attack the right of sportsmen.”
We put the “fun” in “fungibility.”
That, my friends, is called fungibility, a fancy word that simply is used to identify the ability for money or funds to be transferred between sectors of a balance sheet and across budgets. I don’t want to adjudicate the dispute and attempt to determine whether or not the Humane Society really is anti-hunting, but the cogency of the Alliance’s argument hinges on a valuable lesson, what I’m calling here the “fungibility phenomenon.”
When you give to an organization and you earmark the funds to be used in a particular way, you may be inclined to think that your money is somehow isolated from the rest of the non-profit’s budget. Depending on the by-laws of the organization, that may or may not be the case. Unless there is a minmum set amount that the organization determines it will spend on an area irrespective of special and specific additional donation, any funds that are contributed to that particular area lessen the demand for money to come from other parts of the budget.
The fungibility phenomenon isn’t restricted to non-profits, of course. Corrupt governments have been taking advantage of this phenomenon domestically through state lotteries and internationally through government-to-government foreign aid for decades.
But for the discerning giver, it’s important to note that the fungibility phenomon means that when you give, whether or not you specify a particular need or area for the funds to be used, generally you are supporting the mission of the recipient organization in all its facets, some which you may not like.
And if you’re looking for a charity whose mission you can unreservedly support, the Samaritan Guide is a great place to start.
The 2008 Samaritan Award opens today! If you know of a great charity or non-profit organization that directly serves members of a vulnerable population and receives little to no government funding, please encourage them to apply. The grand prize is $10,000 and there are several smaller awards for runners-up.
From the Samaritan Award website:
This $10,000 grand prize is awarded once a year to an exceptional and privately funded nonprofit that fosters deep personal change in the individuals they serve. A comprehensive application makes a program eligible for the Award and enters it in the Samaritan Guide.
The Samaritan Guide encourages effective charity within the United States by providing information on nonprofits that are supported primarily by private donations. Every charity that applies for the Samaritan Award is included in the Samaritan Guide.
Catholic institutions provide a large percentage of the worldwide care devoted to those infected by HIV. That, combined with the Church’s stand on the immorality of contraceptive use, puts it at the center of debates about AIDS and condoms.
There have been several cases over the last two decades of criticism of religious organizations for compromising their faith dimension for the sake of some other end (often government dollars).
At the intersection of these two trends is a new controversy over Catholic Relief Services, the umbrella organization for much of the Church’s charitable work. Some are questioning whether CRS’s new policy on the dissemination of condom information is in line with Catholic teaching not to mention sound health policy.
Rod Dreher links to a piece by Cato’s Brink Lindsey, “Culture of Success.” The conclusion of Lindsey’s piece is that familial culture is more important to child success in school and economic achievement than external assistance, in the form of tuition grants or otherwise:
If more money isn’t the answer, what does have an impact? In a word: culture. Everything we know about high performance in all fields of endeavor tells us that, while natural talent is a plus, there is no substitute for long hours of preparation and hard work…. Apply these lessons to doing well in school, and it becomes clear that the class divide in academic achievement is fundamentally a cultural divide. To put it in a nutshell, the upper-middle-class kid grows up in an environment that constantly pushes him to develop the cognitive and motivational skills needed to be a good student; the low-income kid’s environment, on the other hand, pushes in the opposite direction.
Lindsey, to his credit, recognizes the fact that these sorts of trans-generational, cultural and familial concerns typically lie outside the competence of his own libertarian ideological camp:
We insist on the central importance of individual responsibility for the healthy functioning of a free society. Yet, by the time people become legally responsible adults, circumstances not of their own choosing — namely, how they were raised and whom they grew up with — may have prevented them from ever developing the capacities they need to thrive and flourish.
I’m disappointed to find that Lindsey then makes the move to say that on that basis there exists “the possibility that government intervention to improve those circumstances could actually expand the scope of individual autonomy.” I’m not disappointed because the statement is false (it is in fact true), but because the government isn’t the first place we should look to find solutions to cultural problems. What about other institutions, most especially the church?
Dreher’s post is lengthy and worth a read in full, in part because it takes Lindsey’s piece as a point of departure to bring in a number of other insights and sources. Dreher writes of the government’s relation to culture among the poor,
…I don’t believe all the government programs we could possibly imagine will fundamentally change their condition, because their condition is not fundamentally a matter of material deprivation.
Culture is more important than politics, as Moynihan said. But he also said that politics can save a culture from itself. What kind of politics could save inner-city black culture from itself? Ideas? Because we certainly need them in society at large, not just the black inner city.
Dreher also echoes my question: “Here’s what I don’t understand: where are the churches in all this?”
Where are they? If they aren’t actively engaged in responsible urban evangelism, which many are, then they are probably doing (A) nothing or (B) lobbying the government to do something. A is bad and B might be worse.
Dolly Parton was featured on American Idol this week. One of the songs a contestant performed from her body of work was the song, based on her real-life experiences, “Coat of Many Colors,” and it teaches a lesson directly relevant to this topic.
Here’s the last verse, after the children make fun of her for her coat:
But they didn’t understand it
And I tried to make them see
That one is only poor
Only if they choose to be
Now I know we had no money
But I was rich as I could be
In my coat of many colors
My momma made for me
Made just for me