That was an actual question I was recently asked over Twitter during a disagreement with a conservative over the role and importance of individual vs. collective action, in response to my arguing that good outcomes were a big moral deal.
Twitter is a terrible place for an in-depth conversation, but I’ve had people throw that down in similar conversations before like it’s some kind of trump card. ‘If you care so much, why aren’t you giving away all your money to private charity?’
First, I do give to private charities that directly help low-income people in the US and abroad. But I was also raised believing that it’s morally odious to brag a lot in public about how many good things you do. And I hope those contributions do some good, but a) I know they aren’t going to solve anything and b) if they’re the only thing I have in my favor good-personwise, I’m so going to Hell, which I both do and absolutely don’t believe in.
Though second, and more importantly, I think reliance on private charity is a crappy way to run the world. Which is why I want government to work better.
If you would like to read a very thorough explanation of my position, follow me below the fold …
Let’s address first that I’m not competent to determine the best way to end hunger. I don’t really know where there’s the greatest need, I don’t have metrics on the best distribution methods or economic revitalization techniques. I don’t have access to the government databases or records that might give me those answers and I don’t have a staff that can find that stuff out to a reasonable degree of certainty.
Not being competent to do something isn’t the same as being stupid. I’m also not competent to perform open-heart surgery, pilot a jet fighter or build a house. I will freely admit that I don’t know how to do those things and that if I were blithering enough to try, or anyone else blithering enough to let me, I’d probably get people killed.
So let’s not pretend that I’m a social worker or development specialist, either. Not that all those people have all the answers. Though they’re closer to the problem and I’m fine with handing off that work to people who get good results.
You know who consistently gets the best results on the biggest scale when they get it right though? Governments. I caveat that because (does anyone really think there’s a person alive who doesn’t know this?) governments sometimes screw up in a big way. But still.
Private enterprise is important, but it’s been with us for at least the span of recorded history, long before the word capitalism had been coined. Charity is fine, but it’s also been with us for so long that they wrote about it in the Bible and didn’t seem to think it needed to be explained to anyone. Neither private business nor private charity, in all the millennia they’ve been around, have been able to ease poverty on as big a scale as modern, social democratic government programs.
Free enterprise and private charity are inadequate, incompetent, to the task of relieving poverty on a mass scale and creating a broadly prosperous middle class. Maybe things got close after the Black Death reduced the population of Europe to such an extent that there was a labor shortage for over a century, but I’m not keen on relying on plagues to make the world better. Government is, sometimes, equal to the task and so I think we should let the people who’ve had the most success take what’s worked and try to improve it.
Two stories whose links are lost to me sum up my main feelings on the issue of whether my own private charity is the best way to fix the world’s problems.
One was a blog post at a site called Body and Soul, long shut down, where the blogger wrote about her family getting charity from a local church when she was a child. She remembered a woman bringing them a somewhat crumpled box of sugary kids cereal, of a kind she didn’t like, and staring at the family awkwardly in their rundown living room until her mother said thank you. Maybe that woman from the church felt better about herself, but so what? After the encounter, Jeanne’s family was left not only hungry, but humiliated.
Is that really better than a government worker giving you food stamps because it’s their job, without expecting you to debase yourself to them? Is the private charity actually a transaction of greater nobility?
Another was an interview with a wealthy German businessman in Der Spiegel, sometime around 2005 or so perhaps, that a friend sent me when we were discussing the Bush tax cuts. The article was about what was then just an American model of giving tax breaks to the wealthy, stripping the social democratic aspects of the government back to the chewy, police state center, and leaving problems to private charity to solve. And the businessman’s response was along the lines of, ‘Who am I to make those decisions for my entire community? That’s the government’s job, that’s what taxes are for.’
So, what he said. Not only am I probably not the best person to make micro-level implementation decisions for anti-poverty programs, it’s not really my exclusive right. It wouldn’t be my exclusive right even if I were very wealthy.
I’m part of a society that has a government with the legitimate authority that derives from the consent of the governed, including me. I don’t like everything it does, and I don’t have to in order to continue to believe it’s the appropriate instrument for vital social change. The point isn’t that it’s perfect. The point is that it’s still the best tool we have and it has a lot more right to claim the mantle of acting in the public interest than any single individual is entitled to do.
As often as I’ve heard taunts about helping poor children far away, the most annoying thing about them is that they presuppose there aren’t any poor children who are more obviously members of my community that need help.
Indeed, conservatives do talk as though poverty is a solved problem in the United States. As if there’s some class of poor people in this country doing so well on public assistance that the only virtuous poor people live in other countries where they don’t have governments to help them.
First, that’s bunk. Second, it’s a much better case to be made that I have a greater responsibility to those people in my own community without means.
And I still say that the best way to help them is to advocate for better collective decisions about how resources are allocated within the political entity of which I’m a taxpaying citizen. Maybe it will catch on.
Because there’s only so much that one person can effectively do. I hate to go all self-help on the topic, but it’s a reasonable personal tradeoff to apply my greatest efforts to fixing those things I have the most influence over. I have a lot more influence over poverty alleviation in the US than in the Congo, because this society is at least marginally accountable to me as an eligible member of the electorate.
Further, and you’d think this would also be obvious, I’m more economically productive doing the job I’ve been trained to do and delegating the social work to other people who’ve been trained to do that. Which takes us to the next point.
One of the great things about urban civilization and industrialization is how 90 percent and more of us don’t have to work on a farm anymore. Instead of being generalists forced to produce the majority of life’s necessities directly, we can do other kinds of work and trade for necessities.
What allows this has mainly to do with scientific advances and resources made available through colonial exploitation and global trade than any particular ideology, political or economic. Industrialization has its own problems, including destruction of human habitat, but I’m not going to complain about the urban specialization.
I don’t want to get up at 5 a.m. to milk a cow every morning. Thank goodness I don’t have to.
But here’s the rub: I don’t have a cow.
That would also seem like a benefit, and mostly it is. Where would a cow go in this apartment? And … yuck! Though when I’m unemployed, or if I’d been marginalized out of the job market because of bigotry, or if my education had been truly crappy and local industry shut down and I couldn’t move to a place with more jobs, there’s also no cow. So if I want milk, the only place to get it is at the store and the only way they’ll give it to me is if I have money. Which you pretty much have to earn at a job.
Poverty is a different thing in a densely packed, urbanized, specialized culture than it was in pre-industrial agrarian societies. It’s a different thing in a modern Third World country where the government has sold the peasants’ land out from under them to multinational agribusiness concerns, different than it was in those countries during colonial times and even certainly pre-colonial times.
(Got to give us human beings credit for our creativity at making each others’ lives hell. I guess.)
For a worker in a specialized, (perhaps forcibly) urbanized society, there’s often no path to producing your own necessities if you’re pushed out of the mainstream economy.
I have no cow to milk, no field to harvest, no sheep to shear. If I’m locked out of the interdependent economy, I am probably screwed. It may seem a primitive observation, but as recently as Adam Smith, that wasn’t necessarily true. If people didn’t want or have access to wage employment for much of human history, they very probably did have access to useful domesticated animals or land to work and the skills to generate the stuff of life.
Perhaps that was all they had, and barely that. I’m not saying it was great. It was terrible and oppressive. Yet feudal serfdom was a remarkably stable system that left an enduring mark on our philosophical discourse.
In that model, it’s true, taxation was mainly the parasitism of wealthy gang lords providing the more or less dubious service of preventing rival gangs from ravaging their territory. That taxation almost exclusively benefited the wealthy who lived in comfort denied to the hardworking peasants who provided for them. Feudal governments were totalitarian police and military states, brutal in their punishment of thoughtcrimes against the persons of the monarchy or aristocracy and even the most modest disagreement with the legitimacy of government decisions.
That’s what government is actually like when it takes no responsibility for making people’s lives better. We’ve seen it. There’s thousands of years worth of human history to tell us what that was like, and that conservatives seem to want to ignore, as if everything that came before the industrial revolution is so much irrelevant anecdata — even when their own philosophy derives from ideas with a clear line back to feudal society.
The proposition that government’s main legitimate role is to serve police and military functions, to keep the peace and protect the already wealthy from the starving masses, is pretty goddamn feudal.
The idea that taxation constitutes parasitism mainly derives from the time when that was the true experience of the very poorest people in Western society, and is in full display in Third World kleptocracy states where corrupt dictators are allowed to take out big loans from the IMF and World Bank, embezzle the money, and stick the public with the tab. It’s a blatantly inaccurate expression of the experience of people in industrial democracies who have no recourse to access the means of production and whose governments see providing public goods and services as a core function of the state.
We mainly go to public schools (or used to, before the education
reformers privatizers started shuttering them,) drive on public roads, use publicly backed utilities and sometimes get public assistance when the free market economy doesn’t want to buy our services for a living wage. Because this isn’t a feudal society where government sees its duty as ending with the prevention of carnage in the open streets. And seriously, poeple have been asking for more than that from their societies since before the Magna Carta, so we’re not actually talking radical new ideas here.
In this context, my responsibility towards government and society is different, as is its responsibility towards me. Maybe I didn’t ask to be born in a society where I’m not a completely self-reliant peasant, but I wasn’t and I’m not. I depend utterly on the work of many other people and some people depend in turn on me. I can’t extricate myself from that and it would be dishonest to talk as if I could.
So if one were to say, as did another libertarian who chimed in on the instigating Twitter conversation, “Individual rights always should be supreme,” what would that mean? Rights to what, specifically?
Leaving aside that conservatives usually think individual rights are bunk when we’re talking about women’s ownership of our personal reproductive systems, or that in general they’d never talk about supreme individual rights when discussing people who want to cross national borders looking for work, and that they clearly don’t want to offer such absolutist independence to criminals or enemy combatants, some version of this statement is a standard conservative response to taxation. As if they don’t live in a modern society specialized to such a high degree that to declare absolute independence from it were anything but a sentence to slow starvation.
Rights and responsibilities exist on a continuum in an interdependent society. No one really, truly believes the absolutism that individual rights are always supreme within even mainstream conservatism. Not even Tea Partiers. It’s a silly argument that only means they think they’re being taxed too much and think they should get to make all the decisions about what those taxes are used for, but not actually that they think they should withdraw from society completely and pay no taxes at all.
No one who works most of their day at a computer and lives in an urban setting should ever be able to credibly declare a belief in the absolute supremacy of the individual. It’s a meaningless fantasy statement delivered by people who are self-evidently not capable of directly providing for their every personal need. Everything about the life of the modern knowledge worker makes such a statement a declaration of ignorance and ingratitude.
Individuals are important, our rights are important, and meaningful boundaries on what others (including government) are allowed to do to us are important. Though our responsibilities to others and our obligations to the society that provides for us are not on some lesser moral plane.
The money earned from this interdependent society is, ultimately, the property of the society as a whole. Maybe one might put it as ‘give unto Caesar that which belongs to Caesar.’ Maybe one could point out that money without the full faith and credit of a government, along with millions of other people willing to accept it as being worth something, is just funny pieces of paper or metal or plastic that you can’t eat or wear or shelter under.
Money doesn’t exist outside the context of society, and it’s in no way directly exchangeable with the concept of personal liberty or individual rights. There are things you’re not allowed to buy or sell because that purchase, that exchange of money, would be a violation of the appropriate boundaries of individual liberty.
While it’s conversely blatantly wrong to deprive someone of all sources or means of income or make them work without compensation (and don’t get me started about how we do this to prison inmates), it’s not wrong because of some absolutist right to money. It’s considered wrong because of ideas that arose during the industrial revolution and the rise of government programs that sought to redress historical inequities, looked to public health concerns and actively worked to correct systemic poverty.
It was a belief in the sovereignty of existing wealth and the right of the already wealthy to claim rents on the income of the poor that gave us such social marvels as the debtor’s prison, where people who had no means of supporting themselves or paying their debts were warehoused and forced to work without compensation in appalling conditions.
If money were some kind of inalienable right, than refusing to pay one’s debts might seem jail-worthy. But it really just seems barbaric to deprive people of very basic liberties on account of being poor.
In truth, conservatives are well known for sneering at people who think that access to goods even more important than money constitutes a right. Mitt Romney’s recently infamous 47% rant, for example, drips with contempt for people who think the government should give them food if they don’t have any. Food.
It wouldn’t be pleasant in any way to live without money, but it’s physically impossible to live without food. Money is valuable to people who participate in our society’s exchange network, but food is valuable to every human being now living or who has ever lived.
How does money constitute a right, but not food?
I don’t even know if “right” is the appropriate way to talk about food. But if we’re not going to talk about food that way, no, you don’t get to call money, which is created and given value by social exchange, a supreme individual right.
This is often when your typical libertarian or conservative will start wailing about transfer payments and rent-seeking. Let’s be clear in what context those things obtained bogeyman status: they’re economically unproductive activities historically engaged in by the wealthy to impoverish the poor, and they’re bad to whatever extent that they increase general misery.
Conservative critiques of redressing economic injustice are strikingly similar in this case to their alarmism about redressing any other kind of injustice: that the result of ending tyranny will just result in a new, reverse tyranny, where [brown people/women/the poor/etc.] will just lord it over their former oppressors and so don’t really deserve anything better.
But look, that’s a stupid self-serving argument against ending tyranny that just reinforces the point that sh*t is f*cked up and bullsh*t, as they say.
Civil Rights didn’t usher in an era of mass criminal activity by African Americans. It heralded a steady reduction in the amount of black America’s productivity that whites could get away with not paying for and a decline in the mass sexual exploitation of black women. Conservative opponents of Civil Rights still fan the fears that what was done to African Americans will be done in return to whites and it’s bunk. It’s just bunk.
Greater rights for women still brings out the castration anxiety in conservative men. They fear becoming “subservient.” Hmm. Because if they can’t make women subservient, the only other possible outcome is the reverse? Bunk.
So to be clear, no one’s asking that even the odious Romneys be made penniless. That would be cruel, because being poor sucks. The point is to work towards an equitable society where people pay a fair share of their earnings towards the common good, and we work out through civic institutions how best to serve that common good.
Did I mention that being poor sucks? It does. It’s horrible. It uses up all your energy and mental capacity in just surviving.
People talk about the poor making bad decisions, well, sh*t. When was the last time the rich conservatives who talk like that had to decide between paying the electric bill or buying their prescription because maybe they spent ‘too much’ on food earlier in the month or had to pay for an extra day of babysitting when their kid got sick?
Here’s your full time job when you’re poor: try to predict all the ways in which things could go wrong so you can guess which of your poorly covered living expenses has to be trimmed this month to try closing the gap. Also, try to keep your family from climbing the walls because you can’t afford to go out, or buy new toys, or replace that pair of pants that don’t really fit you anymore, or get the kids the new clothes their classmates have.
That job sucks. I’ve had it before (luckily, without having to bring a child along for the ride) and I don’t want it again.
So some conservative is going to come along and tell me that the correct response to caring about poverty is … to make myself abjectly poor again?
It’s like playground nonsense. ‘Nyaah, nyaah, you like the poor so much, why don’t you go be poor, too.’
Wanting other people to do well, even if you yourself have done well, isn’t some obscure form of hypocrisy that only conservatives can see. It’s basic decency. Get some.
It was argued, “people disagree” about whether poverty alleviation is a legitimate goal of government. So … those people get to decide? Like I got to decide during the Bush administration that I wasn’t going to pay taxes because I didn’t like the Iraq war? No. That’s not how it works.
There’s 300 million of us living together and depending on each other in this country, whether we’re willing to admit it or not. Dismantling help for the elderly, the disabled, the working poor, the chronically unemployed or the children of poor families isn’t going to make this country some economic utopia, it’s going to recreate past conditions for most working families described all too well in such Dickensian favorites as “Oliver Twist.”
Leaving things to chance and whim and the mercy of the market does create more opportunities for individual heroism, but only because the suffering and chaos is so great that a charitable person wouldn’t even have to look very hard to make a difference. This is somehow better than paying your taxes so that there are people in the world whose job it is to keep the streets from teeming with starveling orphan pickpockets?
More poverty makes life worse, makes society worse and more brutal, and makes communities less resilient to disaster. If your worldview considers that an ethical outcome, then your worldview sucks.
Believe it or not, this eponymous conversation and rant started with a discussion of whether or not Rudi Giuliani was correct to say that 9/11 brought out the best in people, and whether individual heroism was more important and virtuous than good collective decisions.
Let’s start with Rudi Giuliani being a case against his own point, with loads of corrupt cronies who started trying to financially profit off the tragedy before the dust was even settled and his own, only slightly less egregious, political exploitation of the event.
Let’s move on to the national political leadership of the Republican Party, who boldly asked the country to go shopping and to let them have a war against a country that had nothing to do with the attacks. Or the Republican punditry of the day, who used the event to call liberals traitors, then to declare themselves in favor of mass genocide against Muslims and destruction of Islamic holy sites.
So no, there are definitely people in whom those attacks did not bring out the best, especially the people who ordered and carried them out, which should be pretty obvious.
Let’s talk at last though about the people of whom that could accurately be said: the first responders on the scene at the crash sites.
Was what they did virtuous and heroic? Obviously.
Though it was also the result of good collective decision making, and to the (smaller) credit of everyone who paid the taxes covering the hiring, training and outfitting of the unionized, public workers who risked or lost their lives to save thousands of people that day.
There’s no amount of voluntary, spontaneous individual heroism that could have made up for the lack of trained personnel kept on retainer by local governments for the purpose of being ready to help when things go wrong. It’s not some kind of false modesty, or any kind of denigration, to describe them as people who were there doing their jobs.
The same men and women volunteering fresh off the street without training, proper equipment or even the faulty communications infrastructure they had available to them, would have saved fewer people and died or been injured in greater numbers. This would have been a qualitatively worse outcome in every possible way, even though it could be argued that it would represent a greater degree of personal risk, and therefore a greater degree of virtue and heroism.
The 9/11 first responders did their jobs. They did them admirably. They did all that could have been asked of any person in such horrible circumstances.
But it’s fundamentally wrongheaded to talk about them outside the context of the social role created for them, like they were Clark Kent happening by chance on a mugging and prompted solely by personal virtue to switch into costume and do something about it.
I don’t actually want to live in a society where the only chance I have to get help in the event of a crime or disaster is for some unaccountable vigilante to wander by. I don’t really think most conservatives want that, either.
The thing about a culture of vigilante justice is that it pretty quickly devolves into gang warfare. It’s happened in poor communities throughout history whenever civil mechanisms for establishing justice have either been absent or insufficient. Though to get anything better out of society, it must be paid for and put in the hands of accountable civic institutions.
And again, it’s neither the right nor the competent expertise of the typical citizen to solely determine how much should be allocated for emergency services, or road repair or any other public service. That’s why we all get together and vote people into office to oversee that and appoint professionals whose job it is to know those things.
It produces better outcomes when you do it that way. And if I’m trapped in a burning building, I don’t give a damn about whether the trained professional is more or less virtuous for getting a paycheck to be there, I just need them to show up and do the best they can.
It’s a matter of perspective, really. And the conservative or libertarian perspective is almost never from the viewpoint of someone for whom things have gone wrong; not of the person waiting desperately for a firefighter, not of the person who doesn’t know where the rent is coming from, not of the person whose neighborhood has neither decent jobs nor accessible transportation to get to a place where there are jobs. Virtue looks different when you’re not a fortunate son of the favored ethnicity.
Perhaps it’s out of fear that conservatives react with such illogical absolutist opposition to considering the circumstances of others, because deep down, they really do know how badly others have it. I don’t know. Whatever. But it sure as heck isn’t some kind of virtue.