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?