The asylums have opened
I’m coming home
I’m home free… –Mike Patton
Daisy left a comment to my diatribe on the purpose of government in which she approached it from several angles. Nevertheless, she didn’t exactly address my point. This brought something from the deeper recesses of my subconscious into my direct line of vision.
In that post I recounted a snippet of a talk I had with a leftie (which is quite similar to many others I’ve had over the years):
I once had a conversation with a leftie in which I asked her, “Why should I have to help the poor?”
She replied with a long list of reasons: other people haven’t been as lucky as me, “we’re all in this together”, if a neighborhood has less poverty it increases property values, it’s good to care for my fellow man, Jesus says I should, etc.
I replied, “Those are all great reasons for why I should help the poor, but you didn’t answer my question. Why should I have to help the poor?”
Unlike Rebecca, Daisy had a response, and a respectful one at that. However, very much like Rebecca, she didn’t answer the question. You’ll find that folks on the left rarely will actually answer that question, for it’s an incredibly difficult one to answer without coming across as either a tyrant or a fool. Furthermore, it goes to the very heart of how their thinking differs from libertarians and most conservatives (certain social conservatives excepted).
(This is part of why I’m not a big fan of attempting to persuade people through writing. It’s too easy to dance around difficult topics, or if they get too difficult, to disappear entirely. How many times have you made the world’s best blog comment only to find that you have no idea if the person you so eloquently refuted even read the damn thing?)
Sometimes when you ask this, you’ll get a Colmes-Over, an example of something conservatives like to fund that we have to pay for. Other times you’ll be accused of heartlessness or simply told “You’re being stupid.” Subject changes are also common; if you don’t watch it within seconds you’ll somehow be talking about Todd Akin’s moronic rape comment or something else that has nothing to do with anything.
Daisy’s answer to the question is another question. “First, is poverty a political issue or not?”
In person, I would refuse to answer her question until she answered mine, and as the conversation progressed we would stumble upon the fundamental difference between how progressives and libertarians/conservatives view morality. I would point this out and hammer it home. I might not convince her that I’m right, but she would have to recognize some of her implicit assumptions.
But because this is a blog post, I’ll point out that distinction through answering her questions. Is poverty a political issue? Yes, but so is the size of Big Gulps in New York. However, poverty is broader than that. It incorporates property rights, regulation, taxation, contract law, criminal justice, and education, all of which are political issues.
Not only is poverty often political in its causes, it’s political in the sense she cites, its results. Roving bands of impoverished marauders disturb the general peace and are likely to violate people’s rights as they rob and loot from them.
None of this alters my assertion that the purpose of government is to preserve individual rights, and this is one of the ways in which the left understands us the least.
The left assumes that the solution to poverty is not only political, it’s primarily political, and it’s an activist government that needs to rectify it. Rare is the leftist who is aware of how the stifling regulation in our inner cities strangles entrepreneurship in its cradle (read Sudhir Venkatesh’s Off the Books for an in-depth description of how the urban poor are forced to survive in the underground economy). Almost never will you find a liberal who understands that the primary reason that some countries have a stronger middle class than others is that some legal systems respect property rights and others don’t (Hernando de Soto’s Mystery of Capital is a fantastic description of this phenomenon, just try to refrain from assassinating the entire Hatian government after you read it). The resistance of teachers’ unions to charter schools and other forms of school choice forces poor kids to go to crappy schools. Leftists don’t understand how competition could improve education for these kids for even less money. Instead, the solution is for us to spend even more money and to hold the teachers even less accountable. If government spending solved the problem of poverty, Detroit would be among our nation’s wealthiest cities (it’s not).
(Some on the left are aware of the pernicious effects of crony capitalism on small business, and for this they deserve credit. Woe to the GOP if it fails to recognize this problem, do something about it, and get credit for it. Also, the drug war is beyond destructive. Some on the left get this; we need to, too.)
Furthermore, the left largely discounts the role of culture. Granted, to many free-market types, everyone on welfare is a drug-addicted loser who spends all day playing X-Box, and that’s not true. However, to many on the left, everyone on welfare is sincere, upstanding, and hard-working who’s just can’t get a fair break, and that’s not true, either. Dalrymple’s Life at the Bottom describes life among the white English poor. These folks have never had to confront racism and live under one of Europe’s most generous welfare states, and with their worldview, there’s no possible way that they could ever be prosperous (save for those few who can run a successful gun-running operation without getting caught).
Yes, conservatives and libertarians seem like they don’t care, but the left has almost entirely forsaken the notion that sometimes people need to be pushed, sometimes sympathy makes them weaker. Yes, there’s a time for sympathy, but that time isn’t all the time.
Instead, it’s all about welfare, programs, and aid. Never mind that although slums in our inner cities 100 years ago were often worse than they are today, rarely did families spend more than two generations living in them; there was upward mobility for the poor, largely without government help. We’re also not supposed to notice that even though South Korea and Egypt were both backwaters in the 1950′s and we’ve given Korea less foreign aid, Korea’s doing far better today in every respect.
Yes, external factors matter. Racism has played a role. Raising children to believe that even though they live in the greatest country in the world that they have no hope unless the government gives them almost everything has played a much bigger one. (And if you want to put all the blame on slavery, please explain how the same thing happens among poor whites in Europe, or how blacks owned more businesses ninety years ago than they do today. The problems should be getting better as slavery goes farther back into the past.)
Which brings me to Daisy’s assertions regarding morality. First, in defense of Rand, she did not condemn helping the poor. She did however condemn using your money to promote that in which you don’t believe. Gail Wynand became disaffected not because his readers helped a poor person, it bothered him that they helped the undeserving poor instead of an aspiring scientist who would have benefitted from the help instead of squandering it. Roark’s master work (for which he accepted no payment) was a low-income housing project, and Atlas Shrugged features numerous sympathetic poor people, from Cheryl to the bum who used to work for the USA motor company.
Regarding the Christian ethic, “Christ was very CLEAR on the subject.” This statement goes straight to my disagreement with Daisy. I’ll answer with a question: which subject?
To go back to my question for Rebecca, on the question of “should you help the poor?”, Christ was very clear. Regarding the question of “should you have to help the poor?”, at no point does he advocate that an Earthly authority force you to do the right thing. He says you should give the poor guy your cloak, NOT that you should take some other guy’s cloak and give it to the poor guy and then brag about how much you care. He may deal with you Later if you don’t do what He thinks you should, but the New Testament makes no reference whatsoever to any sort of obligatory social welfare system.
So to me, there are two very distinct questions; to Daisy’s there aren’t. To the left, you should help the poor, therefore you must. “Randoids” and Christians differ as to the extent to which we’re morally obligated to help the unfortunate, but both the Randoids and Christians (at least those who happen to have noticed that there’s nothing in the New Testament about making people do what they should) agree that we shouldn’t be forced to.
On the left, your politics largely define your morality. Europeans give Americans crap because we give far less per capita in foreign aid than they do as they completely disregard that we give far more than they do voluntarily. Romney and others like him get little credit for all they’ve done for the less fortunate because they oppose raising taxes and forcing others to do the same. Biden gave something like 1.5% of his income to charity, but he’s a great guy because he’s a Democrat.
Finally, I argue that obligatory charity is anything but charitable, for its effects are pernicious to both the giver and the receiver. The giver need not care for his community or work in the soup kitchen; he pays so much in taxes that he shouldn’t have to worry about it (and usually doesn’t). He doesn’t have to be virtuous, for he votes in such a way that he’s making everybody else be moral.
Ever notice how well Europeans tip the waitress?
And something changes in the heart of the receiver, as well. If he has to go to Father Murphy yet again for a handout, he might feel a stronger need to turn his life around. He knows that Father Murphy doesn’t have to help him. He and his parish are doing so because they want to, because they care. Will there be some people who will take advantage regardless? Yes, but he’s more likely to be grateful
However, when he’s getting money from a government agency, he may instead feel entitled. Those are his benefits, the lady giving them to him may know him or care about him, but he might just be a number. Still, that check is his by law. And if any politician even hints that those checks might stop coming, it’ll be time to protest like French farmers.
On the right we’re often accused of selfishness, and therefore immorality. It’s our greed that’s making everybody else poor. However, it’s not us who devised the Robert Taylor homes in Chicago. Republicans haven’t run Detroit since the early 1960′s. We’re not the ones who’ve pushed the welfare programs that have decimated the black family, and we’re not the ones insisting those kids go to the same crappy schools.
We have different solutions to these problems, but they’re based on individual liberty and recognize how people respond to incentives. These solutions have rarely gotten a hearing; you don’t even need to listen to us because we’re mean.
Is poverty political? Yes, and you lessen it by “preserving” individual rights, not by making other people care.