In this time of the year, many of us are compelled to donate to charity. Nobody wants to be a greedy Scrooge. While many Americans think it’s right to give to the needy, many think it’s wrong for the government to give to the needy. What’s the difference?
Antony Davies’ article, The Economics and Morality of Caring for the Poor, provides a compelling argument why charity works for individuals, but not for governments. Davies, an economics professor, provides a libertarian interpretation of Jesus’ teachings about feeding and caring for the poor:
When Jesus calls on the rich to feed the poor, it’s because both of them are hungry. Jesus’ “poor” are poor because they lack food. Jesus’ “rich” are poor because they lack love.
When we rely on the government to “feed” the poor, we dehumanize the poor by regarding them principally as needs to be met. …
When we rely on the government to “feed” the poor, we dehumanize the rich by regarding them principally as revenue sources.
Again, Davies’ argument is compelling. However, I would argue that while government can dehumanize, we should be questioning why this dehumanization exists. Dehumanization does not exist solely because of a system, like a government. Governments are products of human society. While Davies’ argument that government dehumanizes the impoverished may be valid, he appears to assume that government, in and of itself, is a dehumanizing system. I propose that it is not government that dehumanizes the impoverished. It is us–society–that dehumanizes.
Davies, like many political conservatives, speak of government as if it was an uncontrollable machine. Many of us understand this concern. The bureaucracy of government is overwhelmingly complex. We abhor the dehumanizing treatment of bureaucracies. The common complaints of the DMV and public education are simplified examples of complex government operations. Many of us Americans have lost a sense of efficacy in our self-government. That is, we believe these systems and institutions are out of humanly control. We believe the myth that it is not us that can dehumanize, but only systems, bureaucracies, and governments can.
This leads us to reflect about the role of government in our lives and this is the major ideological divide between today’s liberals and conservatives. According to Davies, government taxation is analogous to dehumanization (I’ve also heard the tactless analogy to slavery, as well). Thanks to the overemphasis on the tax revolts when we learn about the American Revolution, many Americans think we’re suppose to a low-tax haven (TEA Party, anybody?). The way I see it, the Revolution wasn’t just about taxes. It was about self-government and allowing American colonists to decide for themselves on the issues, such as taxation and trade regulation (a few of the Founding Fathers were illegal smugglers, like Samuel Adams. How about that for the “rule of law?”). Eventually, America’s Founding Fathers passed taxes like any other government, especially to pay off war debts to Europe (yes, even the Founding Fathers incurred government debt!). Our first constitution, the Articles of Confederation, was scrapped by the Founding Fathers partly because it was extremely difficult for the federal government to levy taxes.
But this also leads us to ask if the Founding Fathers ever predicted that we would have welfare and wealth redistribution policies. It doesn’t matter what they specifically wanted in terms of future policy. Simply said, they allowed for us to decide for ourselves. That’s the point of self-government! A majority of Americans love Medicare and Social Security, the largest welfare and most expensive programs in our federal budget. To dissolve these programs would be political suicide for our elected leaders. Democracy has allowed for these policies. Most don’t consider Medicare and Social Security as dehumanizing. In fact, dissolving (and failing to save) these socialist programs would probably be more dehumanizing by ending health care and income support for millions of elderly, disabled, and impoverished Americans.
In the end, what would Davies and radical economic conservatives propose in place of Medicare and Social Security? Trillions in voluntary charitable donations to the poor, elderly, and disabled? What free-market system would find it worth while (profitable) to care for the poor, elderly, and disabled who have little stable income?