On Saturday, Tony Abbott, a member of the Liberal-National Coalition, was elected prime minister of Australia despite being considered “too religious, too conservative and too blunt” to win a national election. Turns out, he’s an admirer of the work of Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg (Australian born). In 2001, Abbott addressed the role of government in alleviating poverty and reducing unemployment in an issue of Policy Magazine, in a special feature titled, “Against the Prodigal State.” He begins:
The story of the rich young man who was told that perfection meant selling all he had and giving the proceeds to the poor has echoed through Western culture for 2000 years and still haunts debate over welfare policy. Anything that can be sold as ‘generosity’ always seems to hold the moral high ground—even when it turns out to be the kindness which kills. Well-meaning people tend to assume that virtue in individuals is also best practice for governments. Going further, others seem to think that government programmes can substitute for personal responsibilities in a kind of ‘outsourcing’ of moral action from the individual to a prodigal state. Under this ‘social gospel’, political activism becomes more important than visiting the sick or helping a neighbour in need.
He explains the distinction between “ordinary and heroic virtue and the difference between what can be required of people under the law and what might be urged of people in a higher cause.” He goes on:
As commentators such as Samuel Gregg and Michael Novak have pointed out, there is a sharp distinction between private virtue and public duty. The key problem with governments giving ‘their all’ to the poor is that what they have is not their own. The resources of government are collected from citizens, most of whom are far from rich. Governments need to be careful about being compassionate with other people’s money lest they demonstrate not civic virtue but moral vanity. Government giving has none of the ‘going without’ quality of personal charity because the politicians and officials who give are not giving what’s theirs.
the most significant compassion anyone can show for the unemployed is to provide work, boost encouragement to work and improve the employability of job seekers. Government programmes that don’t involve an element of self-help patronise the unemployed and can easily end up reinforcing a sense of failure and victimhood… Government agencies are much better at delivering an identical service to whole populations than meeting the specific needs of individual people.