Some years ago the phrase “compassionate conservatism” became popular. I believe candidate George Bush used it to describe his program for helping the poor. I got to know one of its main exponents and defenders–Marvin Olasky. He was for a while a professor at the University of Texas and I used to take classes there to meet with him after they read one of his books. (I had them read either Renewing American Compassion or Compassionate Conservatism. Olasky disavowed any claim to having coined the phrase, but I have often heard its genesis attributed to him. He certainly was and still is a passionate defender of the approach to poverty expressed by that phrase.)
So what is “compassionate conservatism” and why isn’t it (compassionate)? First, let me clarify what I mean by “it isn’t.” I certainly DON’T mean that its advocates aren’t compassionate people. I know Olasky well enough to know he is compassionate. Over the years he has housed and fed numerous people and helped them find work and become independent contributors to society. That’s all to his credit and to the credit of many conservative Christians (and others) who truly believe what they call compassionate conservatism is better for the poor than government welfare and entitlement programs.
Olasky’s compassionate conservatism, however, is, in my opinion, not compassionate in its effects. When I say “not compassionate” I’m not talking about peoples’ feelings or motives but about the effects of an approach to public policy. My thesis is that compassionate conservatism will not help the poor on any massive scale and, to the extent it is implemented as government policy, will hurt the most deserving of the most needy people in America.
So here’s my brief summary of compassionate conservatism as outlined by Olasky in his books and in his talks with my students. (I now have my students reading Michael Novak’s The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism and that seems to be consistent with Olasky’s compassionate conservatism.)
Compassionate conservatism is the goal of removing from government the task of helping the poor and turning that over entirely to privately run, non-profit organizations including especially churches and religious humanitarian groups. Olasky, anyway, does not think this can happen suddenly, but he advocates a gradual, but steady, process at the end of which the government is not at all directly involved in helping the needy. Rather, the government will (in Olasky’s compassionate conservatism) give tax CREDITS (not tax deductions) for contributions to accredited poverty relief agencies that help poor people get out of poverty, drug addicts get off drugs, etc.
In other words, under compassionate conservatism, if a person donates $10,000 to an accredited non-profit group relief group that has a proven track record of helping the poor (Olasky’s books abound with descriptions of them), his or her tax burden would be decreased by that amount. Of course, there would have to be limits to this so that the federal government and state governments could continue to function. For example, the military would still have to be funded. But government would be greatly reduced so that giving tax credits for charitable contributions would not “starve the beast” to death. (Of course, “starving the beast” is one way of achieving the goal of reducing government, but Olasky isn’t an anarchist. He believes government has a role; it just isn’t directly helping the poor.)
One reason for this policy, according to CCs, is to encourage direct, hands-on work with the poor. The government’s massive entitlement programs tend to discourage individuals and churches (for example) from getting directly involved with the poor. If the government steps aside, Olasky believes, churches will rush in to fill the gap using the greatly increased contributions people will give partly, at least, because giving will reduce their tax burden.
Another reason, according to Olasky and other advocates of CC, is that government bureaucrats should not be deciding who gets government aid; churches and charities should because they are local and better equipped to judge who is worthy and who isn’t. They also will be more likely to hold the recipients of their charitable endeavors accountable.
Well, Olasky has many other reasons for CC. These are just two of the main ones.
CC, as defined and described by Olasky (and Novak who doesn’t use that phrase), sounds good on the surface. But we need to look below the surface to what it would actually do and not do.
First, I’m not convinced that ANY private organization can take on SOME of the things government does. For example, government (usually states with federal funds) provides unbelievably expensive medicines for HIV positive children to keep them from developing AIDS. COULD any private charitable organization replace what the government does for children–not only with HIV but other diseases and disabilities? The costs of these programs are beyond what any private organization can reliably meet. Simply to “turn it over” to private charitable organizations increases the likelihood of children dying of diseases that can only be treated with meds (and other treatments) no charitable organization can afford to treat.
Second, what about populations nobody really cares about and that do not have the where with all to start up their own (what Olasky calls) “trampoline programs?” (A trampline program is a privately funded organization’s effort to help people help themselves out of poverty.) I strongly suspect that MOST people give charitably to organizations that help people with whom they have some affinity or at least about whom they care. THERE ARE groups in the U.S. about whom virtually nobody cares. The point of an entitlement program is that its aid cannot be withheld from persons who meet the criteria on account of their anything (race, ethnicity, culture, gender, religion, affiliations, etc.). A government entitlement program cannot discriminate. It cannot say “We don’t like you, so go away. We won’t help you.” IF a person feels they are being discriminated against by administrators of such a program, they can go to court to force it to give them the aid they are entitled to (so long as they meet the financial citeria).These are two of the reasons government got involved in welfare and entitlement programs to alleviate poverty and sickness. Private organizations simply could not accomplish what needed to be accomplished. That’s not to say government programs are a panacea; they have often failed. But the cure for their failure is not in abolishing them but in fixing them. Also, government got involved because private charitable organizations tended to help certain populations and ignore others. I grew up in a state with a large American Indian population. When I was a kid growing up in that state almost nobody cared about the plights of that population; they were considered hardly human. IF CC were ever to completely replace government aid programs, completely abolishing the welfare “safety net” (as Olasky urges), I’m afraid we would find ourselves in a similar situation to some third world countries where packs of small children live in underground sewer systems, under bridges, etc., and eventually become targets of death squads. (Some years ago–I don’t know if this is still happening or not–some South American countries had vigilante groups going around at night shooting homeless children as if they were rats.) Oh, sure, it’s easy to say “That would never happen here.” But how can you be so sure? Is it worth the risk? Are you certain that if government stepped aside and abolished the welfare safety net, turning all the tasks of helping the poor over to non-profit charitable groups, that all the truly deserving poor would still get the life-saving help they need? I doubt it.
Along with that, would these non-profit organizations (NGOs without government funding) attach strings to their help for the poor that require them to buy into an ideology or religious system in order to receive the aid? Olasky doesn’t see any problem with that. But let’s just suppose that the ONLY NGO offering life saving aid to a certain population in a certain city is run by a religious cult that requires people receiving life saving help to become involved in that cult’s worship. I don’t see how, under CC, that could be prevented.
I remember one time my class was meeting with Olasky in a room at the U of T. I asked him about The Church of Scientology across the street. (I’m not calling it a cult, by the way.) I asked him if he thought it would be okay, under his CC, for it to require people receiving its poverty aid to undergo auditing–its therapy that is based at least partly on belief in reincarnation. He said yes…
Closely related to this problem is another one. Olasky admits that there would have to be a government agency responsible for accrediting NGOs. The Church of Scientology would have to prove to that government agency its effectiveness in alleviating poverty or getting people off drugs, etc., in order to be accredited for the tax credit program. That is, in order for people who contribute to it to receive the tax credit, it would have to demonstrate to the government that its programs work.
But doesn’t that just introduce a whole new government bureaucracy? And how would its administrators decide what “works” means? Could they be completely objective in evaluating churches and other NGOs? And let’s say a certain religious NGO has a program that “works” (e.g., to get people off drugs) but requires, as a condition of their participation, that they participate in the group’s religious ceremonies. Would that be allowed? I think Olasky thinks that’s okay. Imagine the harm that would cause. First, many people would not be able to avail themselves of the program due to conscience. Second, that could encourage a particularly large and powerful religious group to mix proselytizing with its charitable work. That sounds fine to many people so long as we’re talking about THEIR religious group, but what if the ONLY group offering a life saving aid in a particular area is a cult or non-Christian religion?
I think it’s ironic that Olasky (and many promoters of CC) is a Calvinist. Calvinists, of course, believe in total depravity. But Olasky seems to trust wealthy people to be fair and equitable with their charitable contributions. Total depravity SEEMS to apply only to the poor. (If you doubt me on that, read his books! Then let’s talk about it.)
These are some of my reasons for believing that charity cannot replace government welfare programs. (I’m using “welfare” here in its broadest sense to apply to ALL government programs aimed at helping needy people. It’s not just food stamps and welfare checks.) IF you are going to object and argue against me about this, please address this question. IF the government does not provide life-saving meds to HIV-positive children (of which there are many thousands in the U.S.) who will? Do you have any idea how much those meds cost? Look it up first and then answer. This is just ONE government program that, under CC, would go to NGOs (without government funding).