Right-wing Christianists tend to reject SNAP or unemployment insurance or Obamacare or Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, WIC, foreign humanitarian aid, public education, the CDC, the NIH, the FDA, TEFAP, LIHEAP, and HUD, saying “let the churches handle it.”
I appreciate that the main purpose of this slogan is internal — it’s something they say to prevent themselves from listening and hearing, not something they’ve thought through or that they really expect to be persuasive to those back in reality.
As a slogan, then, it’s main function is no different from singing “Lalalalala” with your fingers in your ears. It doesn’t really matter what you sing with your fingers in your ears, just as long as you sing it loudly enough that it drowns out the noise of any inconvenient facts, contexts or people. ” So in that sense, “let the churches do it” or “let the private sector handle it” works just as well as “Lalalalala.”
But I wish that we could somehow, for just a moment, invite them to take their own slogan seriously.
What would it mean to do what they’re suggesting? What would it look like if we took government out of the picture, “liberating” health care, education and assistance for the poor from the hands of government and leaving it entirely up to the free market and to churches and private charities?
As it happens, this is not a hypothetical question. We know precisely what this would look like because we have a model of precisely this kind of society: Haiti.
Haiti is exactly the kind of society these folks are clamoring for. It’s a picture of just exactly what they want for America’s future.
Haiti is, in a sense, an even purer form of this model. Here in America, after all, the private sector and private charities are still bound by government rules and regulations, so even if America’s government retreated from health, education and welfare, it would still “interfere” by enforcing all those rules about fraud, safety, liability, etc. There’s little such government interference in Haiti, where the private sector and private charities compete in freewheeling freedom. (“The Haitian government doesn’t even know how many NGOs are operating within its borders,” report Kathie Klarreich and Linda Polman. “No one does.”)
American government also interferes by instituting all kinds of infrastructure and by artificially enforcing legal order through its police function. Those forms of government interference are far less intrusive in Haitian society.
Haiti is also a sterling example of what it looks like when the binary notion of undifferentiated, exclusive public/private responsibility is put into practice. It settles our ongoing “debate” over the relationship between government and civil society. Some say government support is essential for the institutions of civil society — schools, businesses, hospitals, clinics, voluntary associations, families, clubs, libraries, etc. — to thrive. Others say the government is only interfering — that it should just get out of the way and “let the churches do it” or “let the private sector and the free market” deal with it. Haiti shows us what the latter idea looks like in practice.
Thousands of NGOs in Haiti have spent millions of dollars trying to build civil society as a colony — unfettered by government, detached from government, apart from and in lieu of government. How’s that going?
When someone says “let the churches handle” all aid to the poor and the hungry, or “get the government out of education,” or “let the free market reign in the health care system,” what that person is really saying is “be more like Haiti.”
I don’t see that as utopia. I do not want to see America remade in the image of Haiti’s Colony of NGOs. I want to see Haiti liberated from this libertarian colonialism, this nightmare of smaller government.