Monday, April 21, 2008

Compassion and government

You hear a lot about "compassionate conservatism", which is really itself a reaction to the phenomenon I noted earlier where people who don't want to take money from one group to help out another are seen as uncharitable. I would submit, though, that it is simply not possible for government to be positively act based on compassion.

I am not claiming that "compassionate conservatives" aren't really compassionate; compassion is simply a desire to help in others' times of distress. I'm sure both they and progressives really do want to help. One of my reasons for writing this is hearing E. J. Dionne speak on his book Souled Out, and he certainly seems to believe we should support government helping out the poor to be consistent with a Christian faith. I'm sure he genuinely feels compassion for the poor. My problem is that I first off don't think government solutions to reduce poverty actually do so. Even if I did, though, when Christ calls us to care for the poor I'm pretty sure he didn't mean to take extort money from our next door neighbor and use that to do it.

My first problem with a "compassionate" government is that a government doesn't have any money. I have heard people recently argue that the government owns everything produced in its borders, either through some hyper-socialist ideal or because it prints the currency.

In the former case they are going further than even Marx himself would have ventured. Marx agreed with Locke that a worker is entitled to his wages; he just rejected the idea that capital assets can add value to the product and thus thought that all value in excess of wages paid (surplus value) should be forfeit to society rather than held as profit to the capitalist. The Bible is quite clear that God owns everything, but it naturally follows from the fact that God owns you that He would also own the produce of your labor. For this to be true of the government we must accept that the government does not exist to serve the people but that it in fact owns the people. This argument has certainly been made throughout history by various tyrants, but I would submit that virtually no one actually believes it. To accept this you have to throw out our Constitution because limits on government are ridiculous if we believe we are wholly owned by the government. The only thing that makes sense at that point is absolute tyranny, whether by an individual, a group, or the majority.

The second case is even less substantial. This argument rests on the fact that the government printed Reserve Notes and thus owns them all. If this is true then it would seem reasonable that Dell could at any moment require me to give up the computer on which I write this, since their building it confers permanent ownership to them.

The government has two main ways of procuring money to support its various programs, it can tax or it can loan money. The latter is really a delayed way of taxing, so I'll ignore it. In the former what we're doing when we "give" money to the unfortunate we're "giving" what doesn't belong to us. If you are called to help the poor (and you are) then you should do so, but you should do so with the money you produced or that God entrusted to you, not by taking from someone else.

The second, and bigger, problem is that these "solutions" rarely work. When compassion guides our governance we like to think of the government as a parent who, caring for her children, sees them fall on hard times and helps them get back on their feet to get started again. The problem is that said parent is deeply involved and can make independent decisions on a case by case basis. To successfully administer compassion in our personal relationships we depend on being able to selectively enforce our own boundaries. We have to know the difference between a friend who recently lost their job, is trying hard to get a new one and has cut nearly all their expenses and a friend who has taken up drinking, has lost their job but is keeping up their destructive habit and wasting all of their money. To the former giving some money to help them make it through is a great blessing, to the latter this would only reinforce their destructive habits. The government is guided by policy and so it's almost impossible for it to distinguish these cases. As a result government policies intended to help people out more often than not exacerbate major problems.

An easy example of this is college tuition. We have a problem often harped on in the media that the cost of college tuition rises faster than the rate of inflation. Additionally a huge number of jobs require a college degree to get in, even if they don't use specific knowledge gained from any college program. The standard government solution to this is to provide more aid for people to go to college, but that's what caused the problem in the first place. Every college in this country except two (Grove City and Hillsdale) accept government money in the form of tuition assistance, often a substantial portion of their total tuition costs. Because of this they can charge more for tuition than they would be able to if they had to depend on people actually paying what college was worth and they can put people through college who are going to get a job when they get out that doesn't really require knowledge gained in college. Because there are so many college graduates out there, anybody who didn't got to college is looked on as basically lazy, so employers want somebody with a college degree, even if they don't need something covered by a specific degree program. Make people pay their own way and tuition would naturally come down as would attendance numbers and thus the number of employers requiring a degree.

We see similar problems all over the place whenever government tries to be compassionate. We go easy on illegal aliens and thus reduce the number of hard working people who have waited in line for years to get into this country who can get in. We provide aid to poor mothers and split up families while encouraging out of wedlock birth. I actually just read that the recent FLDS compound broken up was sustained mainly through taxpayer funding of the various wives in the form of welfare checks since they are legally single.

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