Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Why can't we see the alternatives?

The health care crisis has prompted considerable discussion in Facebook and some other forums that I follow, to the effect that federal funds are the only way to ensure that those who are in need get a hand up. By implication, critics of libertarian causes accuse us of promoting selfishness, because we oppose the use of government funds for charitable purposes.

Let's set aside the argument that taxation is legalized theft; and that government is forcibly redirecting our tax money to spend on its favorite causes (some of which are indeed charitable); or even that the data show that conservatives and libertarians give much more generously to charities than liberals, who seem to want charity only with other people's money. These statements are true, but we need to dig deeper.

There is a widespread assumption, undoubtedly fostered by the federal government, that only the federal government has the resources to solve social problems. Never mind that, but for the Federal Reserve and its ability to print money, the federal government would have been bankrupt years ago. Never mind that three generations of inner-city people have relied on federal handouts instead of themselves. Never mind that Medicare and Medicaid, with their myriad regulations, have distorted the once-free health care market to give providers incentives to raise prices to their current ridiculous levels; instead of keeping them low because they face competition. The fact remains, the federal government is not the only way people can be helped. And, as I shall show presently, it isn't even the best way.

We've all heard the proverb that, if we give a man a fish, he will eat a meal; but if we teach him to fish, he will always be able to eat. Federal entitlements have stripped us of the ability to fend for ourselves, and to teach others to fend for themselves. Even those of us who have jobs are afraid to step out to do what we really want to do, because we see too few examples of successful entrepreneurship. Government has destroyed meaning and purpose from millions of human lives -- and not just those of the needy. Few of us will ever experience the spiritual benefits of true charity, because the opportunities are few and not well known to the general population; and because our consumer society promotes selfishness. Liberals have tried to persuade us that libertarianism will put selfishness on steroids.

Eighty years ago, there were plenty of institutions that gave real help to people in need. There were the YMCAs, the settlement houses, the food pantries, ordinary people helping other ordinary people to find jobs; and employers willing and able to take a chance on the poor, but promising young person. People did not delegate everything to the social worker; and government regulations did not give an employer an additional disincentive to hiring a risky employee. Not all of these institutions have gone away, but they are less prevalent in our society now than they were then. Why? Because government has made them seem unnecessary and ineffective; and through taxation it has too often shut them out in the competition for financial and human resources.

Many years ago, we thought of multiple "institutions": churches, schools, community non-profit organizations, arts groups, informal voluntary groups, and free enterprise (meaning farmers and mostly small business). French historian Alexis de Tocqueville* commented at length at the American tendency to form voluntary associations to do all kinds of things, when he visited in the 1830s. Most of us don't do much of that anymore, because we are too busy working long hours at our jobs (to make up for our families what governments take in taxes) or scooting our children from one sport/dance school/planned activity to another. In so doing, we have stripped ourselves and our children of the ability to creatively solve the problems of life. In so doing, we have stripped ourselves and our children of much of our humanity.

As we begin to think about how we might dismantle some (or all) of this federal government, we also need to think about how we can build up the alternative -- voluntary -- institutions that can take up the slack, particularly with education and the social services. This is made more necessary because government is singularly incapable of providing the one thing people in need, need most: love. Jesus taught that, more than anything else, it is love that exalts the human spirit -- but government must by its nature be concerned with efficiency and accountability. Love has trouble staying strictly within the rules.

Non-governmental institutions were the true strength of America, an historical fact recognized by Alexander Stephens in a speech he gave November 14, 1860, in an effort to keep Georgia in the Union:

Our Institutions constitute the basis -- the matrix -- from which spring all our our characteristics of development and greatness. Look at Greece! There is the same fertile soil; the same blue sky; the same Aegean; the same Olympus; -- there is the same land, where Homer sung; where Pericles spoke; -- it is, in nature the same old Greece; but it is 'living Greece no more!'

Descendants of the same people inhabit the country; yet, what is the reason for this mighty difference? ... Why is this so? I answer this, their Institutions have been destroyed! These were but the fruits of their forms of Government -- the matrix from which their grand development sprung. And when once the Institutions of our people shall have been destroyed, there is no earthly power that can bring back the Promethian spark, to kindle them here again, any more than in that ancient land of eloquence, poetry, and song!

(Alexander H. Stephens, A Constitutional View of the Late War Between the States [Philadelphia, 1868], p. 8).

By reducing our government, we will restore our humanity; and with that restoration we can build a vibrant culture. This is a change that can again fill our people with real hope and provide them with real opportunity for personal advancement and growth. However, it won't happen until we detoxify ourselves of the synthetic entitlements emanating from a power-hungry federal government.

* In Democracy in America.

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