Thursday, October 10, 2013

Compassion: Reasoning Backward

I'm sure you can imagine what sort of hate mail this post provoked. Apparently I want to starve old people and children to death, assuming that casting them into the frigid, snow-covered streets doesn't do them in first. One or two of my detractors expressed a certainty that my Christianity is purely cosmetic, a veneer adopted to attract a particular audience. After all, Jesus Himself told us to "help the poor," didn't He?

Well, actually, no, He didn't. Once again, with trumpets:

“Be careful not to display your righteousness merely to be seen by people. Otherwise you have no reward with your Father in heaven. Thus whenever you do charitable giving, do not blow a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in synagogues and on streets so that people will praise them. I tell you the truth, they have their reward. But when you do your giving, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your gift may be in secret. And your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you. [Matthew 6:1-4]

Also remember this scene:

Now while Jesus was in Bethany at the house of Simon the leper, a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of expensive perfumed oil, and she poured it on his head as he was at the table. When the disciples saw this, they became indignant and said, “Why this waste? It could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor!” When Jesus learned of this, he said to them, “Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a good service for me. For you will always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me! When she poured this oil on my body, she did it to prepare me for burial. I tell you the truth, wherever this gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will also be told in memory of her.” [Matthew 26:6-13]

The Christian message of material compassion -- that is, charity toward the "poor," however they may be defined -- is a qualified message. It emphasizes the individual conscience and underscores questions all too frequently sloughed in discussions of charity:

  • Does the beneficiary really need help?
  • Is the benefactor really capable of helping?
  • Should the help be of a specific material nature?
  • Will it really help the recipient, or will it leave him as he was or degrade him further?

All sorts of observations derive from those questions. Perhaps the most important one is that he who ponders whether to give must first position himself so that he can answer them, both before and after giving alms. Most State-administered "charity" fails even to ask them, which should be refutation enough for any thinking man.

All the above having been said, most of the inveterate boosters of State "charity" are unconcerned with the Christian message, except for its utility as a rhetorical bludgeon. They have other priorities. However, quite a lot of them are utterly insincere and can be demonstrated so.

Consider: State-run "charities" invariably take the form of large bureaucracies. The "help" they give "the poor" consists almost entirely of writing checks. The checks are drawn from accounts filled by coercion. The recipients are chosen according to criteria that largely disregard the four questions in the previous segment. In particular, how the disbursements actually affect the recipients goes unmonitored.

The central tragedy of modern State welfarism is not that we can't afford it. We're a very rich society; we can afford quite a lot. The current level of public expenditure on "Health & Human Services" doesn't come near to breaking our bank. The tragedy is that it produces more dependency, more dependents, and more protracted misery rather than less.

No one needs more citations than anyone could find in the Statistical Abstract of the United States. Anyone who bothers to look for facts will find them all there, neatly compiled into easily read tables with a single overwhelming implication:

The welfare state has done immense harm and will do further harm if allowed to continue.

All alone, the statistics on the percent of children born to single mothers, that overflowing fount of social pathologies fueled almost entirely by State welfarism, should convince anyone.

Let's take the Man from Mars approach: Let's look at the situation as if we could see it in all its particulars but have no practical nor emotional allegiance to the current scheme of things. Such an alien would have to reason backward, from our current conditions to their putative geneses, to arrive at a positive prescription. How would he assess what he sees?

His first impression would be that, given the utterly incontrovertible boldfaced observation above, they who demand the perpetuation and enlargement of the welfare state must have other reasons for it than the well-being of the nominal beneficiaries. Therefore, their opinions and exhortations can be dismissed with prejudice.

His second impression would be that the State welfare system has become so luxuriant, and has attracted so many communities of interest that would never accept a reduction in their sector of the thing, that it cannot be "fixed" or "trimmed." Indeed, the system's tentacles reach everywhere, and have become so intertwined that there's nowhere to start in such an effort. The Alexandrian solution -- don't try to disentangle the Gordian Knot, just slash through it -- is the only practical approach.

His third impression would be that, given the history of private charity, in the absence of State-moderated redistribution of wealth, few if any of the truly needy would really suffer. Americans are the most charitable people in the history of the world. Alexis de Tocqueville noted it in the early Nineteenth Century, and little has changed since then. Privately run and funded eleemosynary institutions are everywhere. Were the dead load of the State welfare system removed from our backs, they would be energized to perform miracles of social uplift.

His conclusion would surely be that our seminal mistake was inaugurating a politically controlled scheme of "help" to the "needy." Nearly every social ill America suffers from today can be traced to that collection of decisions and actions. In the absence of a time machine, only ending all such activity would allow for the correction of its errors, and for its replacement by something as benign in practice as it might be in theory.

As a grace note, our Martian would observe that those who clamor for ever more State welfarism are among the least personally charitable of our number. Their "charitable" impulses seldom extend beyond the voting booth. Given the terrible consequences of State welfarism, those who don't profit personally from the system must need it for a sop to their consciences or an increment to their self-regard.

Charity must not be used as an analgesic for the conscience, nor as a self-awarded laurel of moral elevation. Sadly, most persons who advocate State-run charity in ever greater amounts use it in exactly those fashions. The ironies are almost too great to bear.

Nothing in the above is truly new. It's all been said before, and by persons much higher placed than I. Given the terrible corruptions that have been worked upon so many facets of American society, the time has come to shout it from the rooftops. The thoroughgoing politicization of our churches alone would justify the most drastic retrenchments, for no institution has been nearly as successful at combating human misery as American Christianity in its several denominations.

The mantle of "compassion" properly belongs to those who act to help deserving others, not to fatten their own wallets nor to soothe the wounds on their souls. He who disregards the actual effects of the "help" he supports is not "compassionate" by any valid measure. Nor should we grant any respect to those who decry Christian charity because it's Christian. Theirs is an agenda more vile than any words I could heap upon it, fueled by an utterly irrational hostility toward those who have chosen to believe and a fear that their works might result in more like them.

I recommend two landmark books:

...and the automatic dismissal of those who shriek that "we can't go backward!" When you've gone entirely the wrong way, and find your nose pressed into a corner, "backward" is the only way to go.

1 comment:

Chris said...

May I also recommend this gem by Marin Olasky. It is also intructive to look at the lives and well being of American Indians, the group longest dependent upon the corrupt and fickle machinery of the state.