Ross Douthat’s utopia exists, in Haiti

If only “the government” would get out of the way, then private charities could step in, step up, and fix all of our problems.

This is not a serious suggestion, but it’s a popular one, perennially put forward by people who insist we should take them seriously. New York Times columnist Ross Douthat offers a recent version of this in a recent column titled, tellingly, “Government and Its Rivals.”

“Rivals,” you see, because it’s a competition. If X helps a poor person, then no one else can. All responsibility is exclusive and competitive, etc.

The first and largest problem for Douthat and others arguing this is that the facts and numbers are easy to find and they all run counter to the theory. The scope of private charity is not adequate. Nor has it ever been.

Before Social Security, private charities worked hard to provide a small measure of economic security to a small percentage of America’s elderly poor. But the massive reduction in poverty among America’s elderly came about through Social Security, not through private charity. After the establishment of Social Security, of course, private charities have continued to assist the elderly and — contra Douthat — the existence of Social Security has leveraged their effectiveness, not diminished their efforts.

That’s the second problem for those calling for the total privatization of the public safety net — they are contradicted by the vast majority of those who are actually working in the very private charities they praise. From the top leadership to the foot soldiers in the trenches, the people who are doing the hard work of those private charities overwhelmingly wish to see more and more vigorous public support, not less, and certainly not none. They do not view themselves as “rivals” of the government.

This has also always been the case. (Of the many distortions in Marvin Olasky’s seminally dishonest The Tragedy of American Compassion, one of the worst was the way he surgically removed the voices of the 19th- and early-20th-century charitable workers he praises. For an antidote to Olasky’s influential revisionism, see Norris Magnuson’s Salvation in the Slums: Evangelical Social Work 1865-1920. Magnuson consults the same primary sources as Olasky, but actually quotes from them. The contrast is revealing.)

The third problem is more theoretical and abstract, resulting from a basic misunderstanding of subsidiarity that inverts and perverts its meaning. This is where Douthat goes off the rails, but, again, he is not the first or the only person to do so. Subsidiarity is based on solidarity and on the foundational idea of universal, mutual and complementary responsibility. The notion that public and private actors are, necessarily, “rivals” rejects the possibility of solidarity and mutual responsibility, twisting it into something competitive and exclusive. Helping the poor is not a zero-sum contest between public and private actors.

That distortion leads Douthat to confuse cause and effect. He imagines that “government” is usurping the role of civil society, when what is actually the case is that government, as the responsible agent of last resort, has been compelled to do more due to the abdication of responsibility on the part of a civil society increasingly shaped and weakened by a musical-chairs, Randian individualism that denies the universal responsibility of solidarity.

But my main point in response to Douthat’s confused talk of “rivalry” is to point out again the fourth problem for him and for everyone who embraces this theory that privatized charity would thrive and succeed if only it were freed from government interference and government “competition.”

We needn’t discuss that idea as a mere theory. It has been tried and implemented for decades in an experiment that is national in scope. The results are evident for all to see, to measure and to contemplate.

This is how Haiti works. If you wish to see a world in which thousands of vibrant private charities are hard at work with no government interference, support or competition, then just look at Haiti, the poorest nation in the western hemisphere.

The utopia that Ross Douthat dreams of has been made real in Haiti. The blueprint he sketches has been built there in a nation mostly ungoverned save by the work of NGOs. Look there and you will see what Ross Douthat wishes for America.

See also: Booman Tribune: “Romney’s Giant Blunder,” which takes a more cynical view of the idea of a “rivalry” between public and private assistance to the vulnerable.

Added: And also Natalie Burris on “Should Government Promote Family Values? Whose Family Values?“:

Many Republicans and Christians claim the church, rather than government, should be the one to help the poor. These folks argue that government should stay out of providing social services, and don’t want to see their tax dollars used for such purposes. But when it comes to “values,” many conservatives do not have a problem with government promoting a certain family model using millions of dollars in federal funds.

Which one is it? If you want government to stay out of the church’s role in caring for the poor, wouldn’t you also want government to step aside so the church can foster healthy relationships, including marriage and fatherhood?

 

  • Daughter

    I’m glad I’m not the only one who had that reponse. :)

  • Daughter

    I’m glad I’m not the only one who had that reponse. :)

  • Lori

     
    Most Republicans would be DELIGHTED to hand over their urine.  It’s their sacred duty in St. Ronnie’s Jihad Against Some Drugs and All Hippies.  :-P  

     

    I’ve worked for more than one company that had mandatory drug testing for all new hires. (At least below the executive level. I seriously doubt the VPs were peeing in any cups.) Pre-employment drug screening is annoying and sort of low-grade humiliating. I’ve never known anyone who didn’t dislike it but I’ve never known anyone to complain about it more than Conservative white men. That includes people who were actually on drugs and had to take great pains to pass the screen. 

    To hear several of my white dude former coworkers talk, the fact that everyone, everywhere didn’t take their word for it that of course they weren’t using illegal drugs was the greatest assault on personal liberty, privacy and dignity ever in the history of ever. Expecting Those People to give a sample was naturally a whole other thing.

  • Lori

     
    Most Republicans would be DELIGHTED to hand over their urine.  It’s their sacred duty in St. Ronnie’s Jihad Against Some Drugs and All Hippies.  :-P  

     

    I’ve worked for more than one company that had mandatory drug testing for all new hires. (At least below the executive level. I seriously doubt the VPs were peeing in any cups.) Pre-employment drug screening is annoying and sort of low-grade humiliating. I’ve never known anyone who didn’t dislike it but I’ve never known anyone to complain about it more than Conservative white men. That includes people who were actually on drugs and had to take great pains to pass the screen. 

    To hear several of my white dude former coworkers talk, the fact that everyone, everywhere didn’t take their word for it that of course they weren’t using illegal drugs was the greatest assault on personal liberty, privacy and dignity ever in the history of ever. Expecting Those People to give a sample was naturally a whole other thing.

  • Lori

    This is pretty much par for the course for Victor. Just let it go. 

  • Lori

    This is pretty much par for the course for Victor. Just let it go. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Michael-Cule/100001621659800 Michael Cule

    “That’s reminiscent of the reviews I’ve read of Charles Murray’s recent book (him of _The Bell Curve_ fame), in which he asserts (apparently) that the decline of blue collar prosperity is largely due to moral problems.That’s fine: debatable, but it’s a factual claim.”

    It is? Thing is, when I say something is a matter of fact or factual  I’m@DCFem:disqus 
     thinking of something that can be tested or measured. The population of China. The melting point of pure gold. The air-speed of an unladen (African) swallow…

    But ‘moral problems’? Where is your morality-meter? In what units is it calibrated? Because if you can’t measure it, it’s a matter of opinion and not fact.

  • Anonymous

    But ‘moral problems’? Where is your morality-meter? In what units is it calibrated? Because if you can’t measure it, it’s a matter of opinion and not fact.

    They’re stipulated in the review: fewer people are working, fewer people are married, fewer families remain together, etc. All of which I collectively grouped as “moral issues”.

    Like I said, he does use measurable data. What he concludes from the data is wrong, but the premise, given how he defines morality, is something that can be tested.

  • http://loosviews.livejournal.com BringTheNoise

     Given that we’ve got a referendum on independence coming up in 2 years, that’s something that Cameron is hopefully thinking of just now.

  • Julian Elson

    I think that the sheer quantitative inadequacy of private charity is the strongest argument for the welfare state, but I’ve heard others claim that even if private charity were adequate, the welfare state would somehow be better because it would entitle people to support as a basic right, rather than a personal whim of the charitable giver (or something like that). I have to say, I don’t really understand that argument. (Both state and private support are, in a sense, dependent on people being willing to support it, either through the political apparatus (decree of Caesar, vote of the elected parliament, whatever) or through private donations (personal, corporate, whatever).) The fact that private charity just plain isn’t enough is sufficient for me to support state provisions, but some people do go further.

    If anyone supports the view that welfare states are better than private charity on grounds other than “they can do more,” incidentally, I’d be interested in seeing a link to any articles explaining that view in greater detail. (Or if you can summarize it quickly here…)

  • Amanda

    I dunno, I like Victor.

  • FangsFirst

    the welfare state would somehow be better because it would entitle
    people to support as a basic right, rather than a personal whim of the
    charitable giver (or something like that).

    Easy enough: A charitable giver has no need to follow any policy or law, or even have one. Period. Ever. They can write a policy and then ignore it. And they’re asshats, but the person denied it can’t do a damn thing about it. They just go, “Why…you, you…!” and their life goes on (but not for long). So they can say, “No blacks,” or “no women” or “no ___” and that’s just too bad, isn’t it?
    Or even not write that. And just exclude Susan and Gerald, because, hey, screw them, they have no obligation to everyone. Just whomever they choose.

    How easy it is to hold a government accountable is a reasonable discussion, but there is the ability. You can sue or point it out and theoretically some action should/could be taken. They are supposed, by law, and by representation and so on, to stick to what they have written out. And calling them on it allows for this.

  • John___k

    But that’s the problem. Social Security was explicitly designed (IIRC)
    to not have a wage cap, because if it did, the wealthy would get no
    benefit from it.

    Honestly, that was a good thing. If you look at most means-tested programs in the United States, the income requirements are often set so low that even people who are only slightly above poverty line can’t take out the full benefit from them. Social Security is a sacred cow today because everyone gets it. It’s not “just” for the people who are making less than $10,000 a year and supporting a family of four (or whatever ridiculous number they have now) — it’s for everyone, not just the poor, and everyone has a stake in fighting for it. Even Republicans have to be scared when they talk about dismantling SS, and the few who actually try have to lie about it.

    Most
    Republicans would be DELIGHTED to hand over their urine.  It’s their
    sacred duty in St. Ronnie’s Jihad Against Some Drugs and All Hippies. 
    :-P

    No they won’t. No one wants to be subjected to mandatory drug testing, any more than they would like to have the police search their houses every night or be patted down by the TSA or have their own phones wiretapped constantly (even if they’re not doing anything illegal and don’t have to worry about being sanctioned in any way). They might support these policies in general but only if they’re reasonably sure that they will usually be applied to other people.

    The irony of it all is that LBJ figured he could push Medicare
    for seniors, and then use that as a beachhead to expand it to the rest
    of the population.

    I wonder what it would LBJ’s government would have been like if he hadn’t destroyed himself in Vietnam.

    “I knew from the start that I was bound to be crucified
    either way I moved. If I left the woman I really loved—the Great Society—in
    order to get involved with that bitch of a war on the other side of the world,
    then I would lose everything at home. All my programs. All my hopes to feed the
    hungry and shelter the homeless…”

  • Lori

     
    I have to say, I don’t really understand that argument. (Both state and private support are, in a sense, dependent on people being willing to support it, either through the political apparatus (decree of Caesar, vote of the elected parliament, whatever) or through private donations (personal, corporate, whatever).)   

      

    This is sort of true, but state & private support aren’t dependent on will in the same way. State support can be seen as a right, private support never is. Obviously some people consider that a feature, but if you really care about the poor it’s a bug. 

    In addition state support is generally less open to being used as a tool of manipulation. More often than not there’s an element of social engineering to support, both state and private. However, there are limits to what the state can demand. With the exception of actual criminal activity there isn’t much that private charity can’t demand in exchange for help. The most common issue is religious charities demanding that people join their churches or at least sit through proselytizing attempts before receiving aid. 

    The basic issue is that even if the aid in each case is exactly the same amount and kind, there is a huge difference for the recipient between “I need assistance and as a citizen I have a right to receive it” and “Please sir, I want some more.” 

  • FangsFirst

     

    No they won’t. No one wants to be subjected to mandatory drug testing,
    any more than they would like to have the police search their houses
    every night or be patted down by the TSA or have their own phones
    wiretapped constantly (even if they’re not doing anything illegal
    and don’t have to worry about being sanctioned in any way). They might
    support these policies in general but only if they’re reasonably sure
    that they will usually be applied to other people.

    Truth. Fred just posted the link about it, and of course The Daily Show poked fun at a Representative who had passed the FL law, by asking him to pee in a cup. He refused, because he “didn’t need to.”

  • Anonymous

    . Social Security is a sacred cow today because everyonegets it. It’s not “just” for the people who are making less than $10,000 a year and supporting a family of four (or whatever ridiculous number they have now) — it’s for everyone, not just the poor, and everyone has a stake in fighting for it.

    That’s my point: I was contrasting it to Medicaid, which doesn’t support everyone. In other words, the US (for whatever reason) didn’t give health insurance to children at the same time it gave it to seniors, even though (IMHO) there’s a good case to be made for either one.

    The difference, I suppose, is one of obligation. If you give benefits to children, you can tell them they’re obligated to give back to their country. If you give benefits to the elderly, they’ll assume they’re entitled to them, because they’ve already give to the country.

    Then again, for all the talk from the Republicans, they’ve never cared particularly much about arguments from patriotism. Pity that. Maybe that’s because they assume that all benefits should derive from the latter scenario and not from the former.

  • John____K

    Ah, gotcha! Rereading your post again, I get your point.

    If you give benefits to children, you can tell them they’re obligated
    to give back to their country. If you give benefits to the elderly,
    they’ll assume they’re entitled to them, because they’ve already give to
    the country.

    I definitely think we would have been better off. Survival should be a right, not a reward.

  • MaryKaye

    The difficulty with private charity is that it tends to give to a subset of the people in need–those who are most similar to the charitable, those who are the most emotionally appealing, those who do not offend the donors’ sensibilities.  A sound government will, as much as possible, restrict itself to “Where is the need?” and not “Who do we like?”

    There are charities that stick to this as well–Doctors Without Borders has always impressed me.  But most private charities, quite legitimately, limit who they serve to those their donors *want* to serve.

    An economics slant on this:  There are people who can donate, and people who need donations.  They do not have the same demographics.  If people donate within their own demographic, and often that’s what they do, then the money will be less than optimally distributed.  This is why schools in rich areas of my city have more than enough equipment, and schools in poor areas don’t have enough.

    There’s  a particular problem when the need in question is mental health.  Some proportion of mentally ill people are really unpleasant to be around.  If donation relies on positive feelings, these people–whose need is real and severe–are particularly likely to be slighted.  I know about this firsthand:  I was part of a private group one of whose members developed severe schizophrenia.  She rapidly burned through our helping resources.  The cold, impersonal State was able to be some help to her–not as much as I would have liked, but at least *something*.  After a point we were not.  She lived with me for two weeks but I could not have housed her indefinitely.  A friend bought her a tent, but when she threw it away, we couldn’t keep resupplying her.  And of course we could not use force, even though it may have been needed.  To the limited extent that she has recovered, it’s more due to State action than to private charity.

     

  • http://leftcheek.blogspot.com Jas-nDye

    I can’t be the only one getting all the libertarians saying, “Yeah, but we shouldn’t force others to be charitable, etc, etc., blahblah.”

    (for example, the comments in this post on charity: http://leftcheek.blogspot.com/2012/02/charity-and-greed-2.html )

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=581585394 Nicholas Kapur

     Me too. How often do you find abstract digital political poetry?

  • Daughter

    I will say this, however (and I am a big proponent of gov’t safety nets): the freedom of private charities to set their own requirements can be a good thing.  If you apply for food stamps, you have to provide all sorts of documentation to prove you need them, and you have to re-verify your need every six months. If you walk into a food pantry and say you’re hungry, you’ll often be handed a bag of food, no questions asked (other than perhaps getting some basic demographics and contact info from you, the former for statistical purposes, and the latter because many food pantries have limits on how frequently you can access them).

  • Lori

    Oh definitely. I have nothing against private charity. I was simply trying to answer Julian Elson’s question about why an all private system wouldn’t be desirable even if it was enough. I think it’s good that food banks can be flexible in responding to an emergency need in ways that government services can’t. I think it’s less good for people to have to rely on them long-term. 

  • Daughter

    I agree.

  • Daughter

    I’ll also add that a disadvantage of food pantries is that you often have to take what they give you, which doesn’t take into account food allergies or other dietary restrictions. With food stamps, you can select the foods you need.

  • Julian Elson

    Thanks for the thoughts, everyone.

  • Lori

    Food allergies and such are a major issue. So are simple preferences. Being poor takes away such much of the control and freedom that people with money take for granted. Food stamps have restrictions, some of which are weird and/or sort of stupid, but it still gives recipients broad control over what they do and do not eat. Certainly much more than one has based on a fixed bad of items from a food bank or even being allowed some choice from the (necessarily) limited items they have on their shelves. 

    The one area where private charity has it all over food stamps at this point is in non-food items. My parents’ church has a small food pantry that they use to help needy people in the area. The church is small and most of the members don’t have a lot of money themselves, so the selection is not terribly large. It does always include things like toothpaste, soap, shampoo and toilet paper though. All necessary items that food stamps won’t buy. 

  • Daughter

    More evidence for Fred’s point about universal, mutual and complementary responsibility.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    I wonder what it would LBJ’s government would have been like if he hadn’t destroyed himself in Vietnam.

    I wonder what a lot of people would have been like if they hadn’t destroyed themselves in Vietnam.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    I know, from long personal experience, that welfare states are better than private charity, as well as being more sufficient. The second model sends the message that some people are compassionate and want to ease the sufferings of thers; the second sends the message that justice demands everyone have enough, and that our society is one that values justice.

    Kindness is great. It really is. But it’s no substitute for justice.


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