There is a comment on my previous post that I have decided to answer in the form of a new entry because it touches on two of the biggest objections that right-wing America has to social programs. Chucky writes:
And what is the penalty if someone chooses to not pay, but then donates that money to a more efficient charity?
The State is always totalitarian. It is a monopoly.
I’m going to deal with these in reverse order because it’s not really possible to address the objection about government inefficiency without first discussing the problem of the legitimacy of the state.
The idea that government is basically bad and that the state is really out to get you is very popular in right-wing media. But it really isn’t compatible with Church teaching. If you read Catechism 2238-2242 on the duties of citizens you’ll notice that we’re exhorted to obey and respect political authority under the fourth commandment: “Honour thy father and they mother.” In the same way that we do not see parents as a necessary evil, we don’t see the organized state as a necessary evil, but rather as a positive good. This is why the Church, in every era, has encouraged Christians to uphold legitimate government and to pursue an orderly civil society and it’s why Christ and St. Paul recommended obedience to civil authorities. (No matter how bad you think Obama is, he’s got nothing on Tiberius, who was emperor at the time when Christ instructed us to “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s.” (Mark 12:17) )
Far from looking at our rulers with constant suspicion, we’re to honour legitimate political authority in the same way that children are to honour their parents. Yes, all parents are imperfect, but most parents do provide pretty reasonably well for the needs of their kids. In the same way, all states are imperfect, but most do a decent job of looking after their citizens. A totalitarian state is one in which the the rights of citizens are wholly, or almost wholly, subordinated to the will of the leader or of of the Party. It’s the equivalent, on the level of the state, of an abusive parent.
To most people who have actually lived under totalitarian regimes, the idea that modern Western democracies are “totalitarian” is deeply insulting. It represents a severe disconnect from the reality of life under tyranny. The fact is that even with the Patriot Act, even with the NSA unjustly spying on people, even with militarized police and a political system that is excessively responsive to the needs of the military industrial complex, the average citizen of the United States enjoys substantially more freedom than the vast majority of human beings throughout almost all of history. That doesn’t mean that we should shut up and stop complaining about the real problems and injustices that exist in Western democracies, but it does mean that it’s thoroughly problematic to act as though the American government is so thoroughly evil and corrupt that you no longer owe them due honour and obedience.
Private Charity vs. Social Programs
One of the ways, in fact, that Western governments provide for the liberty of their citizens is by allowing citizens to do exactly as Chucky has proposed: if you want to avoid taxes and donate, instead, to charities of your choosing you can do that. You donate to a registered charity. You get a receipt. You claim a tax deduction. Those who honestly wish to be generous are encouraged to do so.
On a society-wide level, however, leaving the care of the needy to private charity is problematic in two ways.
First, while an individual charity may be more efficient, it’s actually hugely difficult to prevent massive inefficiencies across charities. You end up with different charities duplicating the same work, organizations fail to communicate with one another and may even behave as though they are in active competition for donor resources. I have a friend who runs a community trust and she was talking just the other week about how hard it is to co-ordinate the actions of disparate charities — and she’s only dealing with charitable organizations in a single city, and all of the organizations in question are receiving funding from the same body. While government inefficiency is a constant source of irritation to tax-payers, the fact is that an uncoordinated patchwork of private charities is often actually less efficient than coordinated social programming.
Second, and this is a much bigger problem, a lot of people simply will not care for their neighbour unless they are legally compelled to do so. In states with lower taxation and fewer publicly administrated social welfare programs you do not generally see a very high standard of care for the poor. Some conscientious individuals will be just as generous, even more generous, if you leave them to their own devices rather than compelling them to provide for others — but the job of the state is to produce legislation that accounts for the behaviour of the majority. Utopian systems consistently fail because they assume that human evil is caused by the present political order (whatever it is) and that under the new, better, more enlightened order people will be less greedy, less selfish, more generous and more public-spirited. Whether you’re a communist or a libertarian, it’s a pipe dream.
Since providing for the poor is an obligation in justice it is perfectly just for the state to enforce taxation in order to provide for the needy. In the same way that it is just for the state to forbid individuals from stealing from their neighbours, it is equally just for the state to forbid the rich from stealing from the poor. According to Catholic social teaching, when the rich fail to adequately provide for the needs of the poor this is a form of theft. It violates God’s plan for the goods of the earth. Material goods are not given for individual aggrandizement, but rather they have a “universal destination,” that is, they are intended to provide for the needs of all. “Goods of production – material or immaterial – such as land, factories, practical or artistic skills, oblige their possessors to employ them in ways that will benefit the greatest number. Those who hold goods for use and consumption should use them with moderation, reserving the better part for guests, for the sick and the poor.” (CCC 2405)
If we go back to the analogy between the state and a parent, it becomes immediately apparent that some state intervention is going to be necessary to ensure this kind of distribution of goods. While it’s very good that individual children have things of their own that they can care for, and that their siblings cannot take without asking, it is also clearly true that most children, left to their own devices, will try amass all of the best things for themselves. At this point when a parent steps in and says “You have more Star Wars toys than you can play with. I know they’re yours. I know you got them first. But you have to share. Now, let your sister play with these ones,” that is not an unjust or totalitarian imposition. It may be perceived that way by the four year old who wants all of the toys for himself (or who is happy to give his sister the chewed up storm trooper while he keeps Han, and Luke, and Darth Vader, and Leia and the Ewoks for himself) but in fact the parent is being perfectly reasonable. Would it be better if the child shared spontaneously, without compulsion? Of course it would. But no parent sits there, waiting for their kid to miraculously start to be considerate of his sister’s needs. We all intervene. We all say “You have to do this. You have to share. Otherwise, you will lose all of the toys.”
The state, acting legitimately for the common good, is absolutely right to do the same.
Picture credit: pixabay
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