I just read a piece by Kathleen Kennedy Townsend in the Atlantic questioning Texas Governor (and presidential candidate) Rick Perry’s Christianity. Why? Because he’s against a welfare state, i.e. massive taxation and wealth redistribution by the government in the name of helping citizens in need in various ways. Now I’m no theologian (nor, as far as I know, is Ms. Townsend), but I think I have a pretty good basic understanding of Christianity, and I’m pretty sure Jesus taught that people should help one another out voluntarily. I’ve never heard of Jesus ever teaching that governments should force their citizens to help one another out.
I don’t know what the virtue in the latter (the forced help) would be, but as a psychologist, I do know that it actually works against people’s charitable inclinations when the government takes their money and redistributes it. After having their money confiscated by their government, in part, ostensibly, to help their fellow citizens in need, people asked to voluntarily contribute even more of their money to charities often subconsciously (and some consciously) think, “Wait a minute, I thought the government was taking care of this.” That then has a secondary unintended consequence of reinforcing the idea (even among some people whose natural tendencies would be to believe in both self-reliance and voluntary generosity) that needy citizens really should look to the government for help.
I think that Townsend and others who mistakenly (or worse, disingenuously) associate “social justice” with coerced wealth redistribution by the government have about as much moral credibility as former South Carolina governor Mark Sanford (I wrote about him last week) to critique other people’s Christianity, but when they do, notice how they only focus on the supposed “immorality” of people not giving enough. They never even mention the immorality of people taking things that they don’t really need, things that they could get on their own if they did as much as they could for themselves.
Approximately 15% of Americans currently receive food stamps, i.e. free food from the government paid for with our tax dollars, yet I don’t think there’s any way that 15% of Americans are truly incapable of producing enough income over their working lifetimes to at least keep themselves and their minor children fed (every species has members who are incapable of sustaining themselves, but no species that I’m aware of — not ants, not tree frogs, not human beings — has an incapacity rate that high).
People like Ms. Townsend love to talk about how “wrong” it is for hard-working Americans to want to keep more of their hard-earned money. For consistency’s sake, it’d be nice to hear them talk once in a while about how wrong it is for an able-minded, able-bodied, lazy adult to accept food stamps. I’m not saying that everyone who receives food stamps is lazy, but if you do the math, there’s no question that some percentage of food stamp recipients are.
I would submit to Ms. Townsend that it’s actually not compassionate to give a lazy adult food stamps. Rather than enabling that person to sit around and atrophy (mentally, physically, and spiritually), I would submit to Ms. Townsend that the more loving thing would actually be to allow that person to feel some acute need — enough to motivate the person to want to find something to do that’s of some value to others, thereby both feeding him/herself and developing his/her potential as a human being. I would submit to Ms. Townsend not only that we’re not morally required to support someone who’s capable of supporting him/herself but also that it can actually be wrong to do so.
In an economy as sluggish as ours is lately, we need fewer, not more, transactions that involve payment for no value, i.e. fewer, not more, instances in which money flows to someone with no value flowing back to the money source. That means we ought to be striving to de-centralize rather than centralize charity, making it as local and as voluntary as possible, such that the givers (or their representatives) actually see the recipients, can actually individualize the assistance, can actually monitor how the assistance is being used, and can draw lines when the assistance stops helping and starts “enabling.”
That’s the kind of charity that actually helps those who can be productive to do so and helps the truly incapacitated to do more than just subsist (because when the only recipients are those who are truly incapacitated, their numbers are relatively small, and the generosity available to them is relatively abundant). That kind of charity generally comes not from some bureaucrat off in Washington who never sees the recipients and thinks that one size fits all, but from concerned individuals and voluntary groups, giving freely of their time and treasure, to make things better closer to home (and as this non-theologian understands it, that’s also more like the kind of charity Jesus taught).