Category: Effective Compassion

July 31st marks the 100th birthday of the economist Milton Friedman. Celebrations planned by proponents of free-markets will take place across the country to recognize and pay tribute to his legacy and the power of his ideas. I am speaking at an Americans for Prosperity event in town on the topic of school choice on his birthday.

My commentary this week is on school choice. Nobody has influenced and shaped the school choice movement more than Friedman. In my piece, I stressed the moral power of pivoting away from bureaucratic centralized schooling and encourage greater parental involvement in education. Simply put, school choice allows for parents to better shape the spiritual formation of their children. Nobody can make better decisions about the education of their children than the parents.

Finally, schools that have to compete for students and tax dollars will be forced to improve and be innovative for today’s complex and global marketplace.

Last week, PowerBlogger Andrew Knot and I wrote posts about American sugar policy and farm subsidies, respectively. Now, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, as well as the Catholic Relief Services and National Catholic Rural Life Conference, have come out with a joint letter on the 2012 farm bill that just passed the Senate. Among other things, they urge Congress to reduce agricultural subsidies, and limiting crop insurance to small and medium sized farms.

In 2010, the government gave out $96 billion in farm subsidies. As I pointed out last week, the median farmer’s income is already 25 percent higher than the median American’s. Furthermore, most of the farm money is going to a small number of the farmers. Big farms tend to get a much larger share of the handout than small and medium sized farms do. American agricultural policies represent welfare and protectionism for the already well off.

The USCCB’s letter can be read here.

At the most recent Acton University, American Enterprise Institute president Arthur Brooks gave a brilliant and paradigm-shifting speech on why advocates of free enterprise need to explain why it is the most moral, most fair, and most helpful system for alleviating poverty. You can download it here. (It’ll be the best 49 cents you spend this week.)

I was thrilled to discover today that AEI has created an animated video that covers much the same material as in his lecture. Watch the whole thing. (It’ll be the best 8 minutes you spend this week.)

One of the real challenges in arguing for various social policies is getting reliable data about the effectiveness of government programs. This is particularly the case with regard to welfare spending. It’s often very difficult to measure a particular program’s effectiveness, however. But this is an essential task, as Jennifer Marshall writes:

The measure of our compassion for the poor should not be how much we spend on federal antipoverty programs. Compassion must be effective.

We ought to define success by how many escape dependence on welfare to pursue their full potential as human beings. To measure our commitment to the poor by the number of dollars spent on antipoverty programs is to diminish human dignity.

Researchers in the UK have written a report arguing for an approach to public policy that integrates “randomized controlled trials” (RCTs) into attempts to measure the impacts, intended and otherwise, of government programs. In “Test, Learn, Adapt: Developing Public Policy with Randomised Controlled Trials,” (HT: Hacker News) the authors argue that RCTs are used widely in the private sector, but at least in the UK they “are not routinely used to test the effectiveness of public policy interventions.”

They go on to explain why RCTs are particularly helpful in determining the effectiveness of a particular program:

What makes RCTs different from other types of evaluation is the introduction of a randomly assigned control group, which enables you to compare the effectiveness of a new intervention against what would have happened if you had changed nothing.

The introduction of a control group eliminates a whole host of biases that normally complicate the evaluation process – for example, if you introduce a new “back to work” scheme, how will you know whether those receiving the extra support might not have found a job anyway?

Check out the whole report which provides details on the nine suggested steps for implementation (PDF).

The Office of Management and Budget’s (OMB) 2012 draft report to Congress on costs and benefits of federal regulations states that “agencies should carefully consider how best to obtain good data about the likely effects of regulation; experimentation, including randomized controlled trials, can complement and inform prospective analysis, and perhaps reduce the need for retrospective analysis.”

This last point is somewhat dubious, for as the title of the UK report indicates, the process of evaluating the effectiveness of public policy interventions is ongoing: Test, learn, adapt, repeat! The ninth step is actually to “return to Step 1 to continually improve your understanding of what works.” But in any case it might well be that RCBs are going to be one tool increasingly relied upon to provide some helpful insight into what works and what doesn’t.

Blog author: John MacDhubhain
posted by on Wednesday, June 20, 2012

From Reason.com’s blog comes this story about the company Capital Bikeshare, a business which rents bikes to people throughout the D.C. metropolitan area. Sounds like a cool idea, but why is it getting taxpayer support?

Capital Bikeshare, which rents bikes at more than 165 outdoor stations in the Washington D.C. area, serves highly educated and affluent whites.There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, except that the program has received $16 million in government subsidies, including over $1 million specifically earmarked to “address the unique transportation challenges faced by welfare recipients and low-income persons seeking to obtain and maintain employment.”

Well, helping the poor sounds nice. I bet it’s really helped them out, let’s see if that’s the case.

Capital Bikeshare’s latest user survey finds that 95 percent of its regular patrons have college degrees, 53 percent have a Masters or Ph.D., and 80 percent are white. Fully 0 percent have only a high school diploma and just 7 percent make less than $25,000 a year. More than 90 percent were employed and 14 percent reported they were college students, suggesting that very few welfare recipients are using the service.

Well, at least legislators can feel good I guess, even if they haven’t really done any good. This episode points out that government efforts are often poorly targeted in their attempts to help the poor. There’s nothing wrong with running a bike service, but the rationale that such enterprises should receive tax payer support because they help the poor is wrong. This applies to many topics in attempted government aid, many government policies that are ostensibly meant to help the poor are actually very poorly targeted. As Ismael Hernandez said last week during a lecture given at Acton University, we must use not just our hearts and our muscles, but also our minds.

A lecture from Ismael Hernandez on “Subsidiarity and Helping the Poor” and other lectures from Acton University can be found here.

Blog author: jcarter
posted by on Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Nowhere in his article for The Atlantic does Joshua Foust use the “s” word.  But it’s obvious from the examples he mentions that the key to providing aid to Pakistan is applying the principle of subsidiarity:

. . . the most interesting project RSPN has done in rural Pakistan is a collaborative micro-healthcare insurance system. For very little money — $3.50 a year in some cases — poor people can get access to basic medical care (especially maternity care) and assistance if they face hospitalization.

A hyper-local focus on poor, isolated communities has created an unexpected way to provide previously unfathomable sorts of services to the poor at very low cost. The RSPN affiliates who provide microinsurance reach almost a million people, and at very little cost, by employing local community members for expertise, services, and administration.

This structure applies to much of what RSPN does: local projects, run by locals. It is a sharp contrast to even the ostensibly locally focused aid projects administered by U.S. and European NGOs and aid agencies, which focus on establishing a strong presence in capital cities and rely on expensive expatriate administrators. RSPN’s local focus carries significant spillover effects in its communities as well: providing opportunities and improving the quality of life makes those communities significantly better off as a consequence. The “brain drain” of young people leaving to find opportunity elsewhere is diminished, and with better health and finances they can develop themselves, without the distorting effect of foreign money.

Read more . . .

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Thursday, May 10, 2012

In a paper at the symposium I noted in yesterday’s post, Richard Helmholtz described the application of natural law in a particular case in which the judges observed that “charity begins at home,” since “it is a natural impulse to do good to one’s own family.”

Because of the wonders of digital publishing and public libraries, I was able to borrow an ebook version of Winter’s Bone from my local library. As I noted yesterday, there’s a scene in the film that powerfully evokes a recognition of natural moral obligations, in this case to one’s neighbor.

In the book version, however, this scene is even more prominent, as it concludes the very first chapter (in the book, Ree’s brother is named Harold):

She heard the door behind her squeak and Harold, age eight, dark and slight, stood in pale long johns, holding the knob, fidgeting from foot to foot. He raised his chin, gestured toward the meat trees across the creek.

“Maybe tonight Blond Milton’ll bring us by one to eat.”

“That could be.”

“Don’t kin ought to?”

“That’s what is always said.”

“Could be we should ask.”

She looked at Harold, with his easy smile, black hair riffling in the wind, then snatched his nearest ear and twisted until his jaw fell loose and he raised his hand to swat at hers. She twisted until he bore up under the pain and stopped swatting.

Never. Never ask for what ought to be offered.”

In this account from the book the relation between Ree’s family and her neighbors is more obviously that of “kin,” although even in the film this seems to be the kind of region where nearly everyone is related in one way or another.

Indeed, claims on the moral obligations of “kin” are a foundational theme on the development of the rest of the story’s plot. The audience takes the journey with Ree, discovering just what is expected of kin and what might be actually delivered in this concrete situation.

Whatever Ree gets, however, doesn’t come easy. In the book she’s sixteen years old with “a body made for loping after needs.”

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Wednesday, May 9, 2012

I was privileged to participate this week in a conference at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, hosted by the Division for Roman Law and Legal History, “Law and Religion: The Legal Teachings of the Protestant and Catholic Reformations.” My paper today was titled, “Natural Law and Subsidiarity in Early Modern Reformed Perspective.”

In this paper I explore some of the theological context in the sixteenth century among Reformed theologians like Wolfgang Musculus, Peter Martyr Vermigli, Jerome Zanchi, and Franciscus Junius that form a part the early modern pre-history of the modern principle of subsidiarity.

In this respect, I argue particularly that

The link between natural law and the idea of subsidiarity in this early modern Reformed context, then, is in the affirmation of the natural moral obligation to help your neighbor, both at the individual as well as at the institutional level. Subsdiarity, in its most basic (if not yet principled) sense is in this way a corollary of natural law, in that it is an aspect of the rational ordering of society, including human individuals with a common nature (including dignity and relative autonomy) as well as a variety of institutions with different ends (natures). Subsidiarity is an answer to the question of ordering variegated social institutions and relating them to the individual, an answer which became increasingly developed and mature as Reformed social thought progressed.

20120509-001219.jpgI was reminded of the ongoing significance of the “natural moral obligation to help your neighbor” when watching the acclaimed film Winter’s Bone recently. Ree is Sonny’s older sister, and even though she is still in high school she is the sole provider for the family. The family is under enormous financial and legal pressure, and with this background we have this exchange between Sonny and Ree. They see that their neighbors have recently killed a deer, while Ree’s family is starving:

Sonny: Maybe they’ll share some of that with us.
Ree: That could be.
Sonny: Maybe we should ask.
Ree: Never ask for what oughta be offered.

“Never ask for what oughta be offered.” In that short phrase we have a deep insight into the assumed social obligations in this example of Missouri hill country, as well as the rather remarkable willingness to go without, and perhaps starve, rather than ask for what someone is morally obliged to provide. It captures wonderfully the simultaneously coexisting rugged individualism and social conscience of historic American culture.

Ree’s neighbors have full knowledge of her family’s troubles, and later that evening they do in fact bring food to them, with the explanation that the neighbor didn’t want them to think that they “forgot” about their moral obligations.

These scenes are one small illustration of what I argue is the Reformed “vision of a society as one of mutual aid.”

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Thursday, May 3, 2012

Dr. Kuypers zorg voor de kleine luyden

Albert Hahn: Dr. Kuyper's care for the little people (1905)

In yesterday’s post I highlighted a pair of articles that cover the transition over the last 120 years or so in the Netherlands from an emphasis on private charitable giving to reliance upon the welfare state. In some ways this story mirrors a similar transformation in American society as described by Marvin Olasky in his landmark book, The Tragedy of American Compassion.

Olasky’s work does double-duty, however, not only chronicling this transition but cogently arguing the superiority of voluntary aid and charity, which can effectively address both spiritual as well as material aspects of poverty.

In the special issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality on “Modern Christian Social Thought,” we also find a wonderful resource on this topic in the form of Abraham Kuyper’s reflection from 1895 on the relationship of Christ and the gospel to material concerns, “Christ and the Needy.”
(more…)

I recently came across an interesting academic journal, Diaconia: Journal for the Study of Christian Social Practice. One of the sample articles available is by Herman Noordegraaf of the Protestant Theological University in Leiden. His piece is titled, “Aid Under Protest? Churches in the Netherlands and Material Aid to the Poor” (PDF).

The latest issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality is a theme issue on “Modern Christian Social Thought,” and a series of pieces take up a line of recent history in the Netherlands. A significant article by Rolf van der Woude, senior researcher at the Historical Documentation Centre for Dutch Protestantism at the VU University Amsterdam, examines the changes in Reformed thought on the social question from the First Social Congress in 1891 to the Third Social Conference in 1952. As van der Woude concludes, in the post war era, “A new generation believed that the beast of the state, caged for so long, had now been tamed. At the end of the 1950s, Van den Heuvel’s generation retreated, the Netherlands entered a period of economic boom, and a generous welfare state was rapidly erected from the ground up wherein welfare was no longer a matter of charity but a matter of justice guaranteed by the government. The beast of the state had become an ally.”

Noordegraaf’s piece can be read as a companion article to van der Woude’s, tracing the development (or lack thereof) in Christian social thought in the Netherlands over the last half century. As Noordegraaf writes, the situation has largely remained the same, in that the church’s primary responsibility is understood not merely to have to provide material assistance to the poor, but rather advocate for reliance on the welfare state for such provision. As Noordegraaf writes, a declaration on the problem of poverty in 1987 codified the approach of “aid under protest,” in which the churches provide aid to the poor but only under protest that the government was not meeting welfare needs appropriately. The statement reads:

We reject the way people are once again made dependent on charity. We plead for social security that is not charity but a right that is fully guaranteed by government. For this reason, financial aid given by churches in situations of need should be combined with protest against the causes of this need to government and society.

Noordegraaf’s observation is that the churches, both locally and denominationally, have been too concerned with meeting the momentary concrete needs of the poor and need to pay more attention to the mandate to lobby the government for more expansive social welfare programs. The point is that the need for Christian or church-based charity indicts the lack of justice under a modern constitutional state, where freedom from need and want ought to be simply guaranteed.

As Nordegraaf concludes concerning recent trends, “More and more, as the above mentioned reports show, churches have been involved in material aid: when people are in need and ask for help, you give it. It is a kind of safety net under the increasingly porous safety net of the state.” He continues, “The fact that the churches found this problematic reflects their belief that the principles of the welfare state are worth fighting for. This has to do with a vision of the task of the state to promote the general welfare and to secure the basic needs of people in society.” Noordegraaf concludes that “it is in harmony with the calvinist approach of the responsibility of the state that churches try to make clear to government and to society at large that they have helped with material aid. This signalizing can take many forms: in letters, reports, talks, discussions, programmes in the media, articles in newspapers and so on. In this way, individual aid is combined with advocacy in the public domain.”

I commend these two articles to your reading: Rolf van der Woude, “Taming the Beast: The Long and Hard Road to the Christian Social Conference of 1952,” and Herman Noordegraaf, “Aid Under Protest? Churches in the Netherlands and Material Aid to the Poor.”

They will make clear just how much things have changed over the last 120 years in the Netherlands, when Abraham Kuyper emphasized the priority of Christian giving in 1881, arguing that “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.” Such emphasis on private Christian charity is now understood to be retrograde and obsolete.