By Samuel M. & Alison Moore Smith
On August 11, 2012, a politically charged discussion began on Facebook among some church members. One man posted a link to an article written by his former dissertation advisor, Steve Schneck. While the article did little to claim ownership of “subsidiarity,” it did bring out some strong opinions.
[Note: The Facebook post and comments referenced here were not private. They were posted on a wall that (at this writing) is still set to public availability. Originally this post quoted the actual conversation as it occurred. I was asked to remove some of the actual quotes and the names. I have done so, but would have preferred to leave the real quotes so that the reader could judge the veracity of the statements as opposed to a paraphrased version. I will do my best to leave the actual intent intact. If the commenters are willing to have their names and/or actual quotes presented here, I will be happy to oblige.]
The first comment on the thread referred to Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan. It stated that they were a Mormon and a Catholic who didn’t care for the poor.
I (Alison) responded next:
Or maybe “caring for the poor” is about personal responsibility, not taking from others so we can sleep better.
A third commenter, piped up stating that I had demonstrated myself to be a second Mormon who did not care for the poor.
Romney has given millions and millions to charitable causes over his lifetime — likely far more than anyone accusing him of not caring for the poor. In spite of the implication, neither the accuser nor anyone else in the discussion has any knowledge of my (Alison’s) personal charitable work, and didn’t ask. Still the narrative that conservatives are necessarily greedy, selfish, and unconcerned for anything but their pocketbooks is far too common.
Contrary to oft-repeated accusations or stereotypes, the issue is not a lack of compassion or concern. Amongst people we know, one nearly universal characteristic is the feeling of both compassion and obligation — or guilt — for those “less fortunate.”
What we mean by “guilt” is that when one sees the poor, downtrodden, or starving — whether it be in person or otherwise — we are struck with “pangs of conscience” that compel us to help them. The visceral reaction tends to be, “I should do something to help them! What if I were in the same position as this person, wouldn’t I want someone to help me?”
While there are some few who are so hardened and self-interested that they have no concern for the plight of others, typically people of all types and degrees of political and religious disposition experience this “guilt.” Indeed it may be one of the truly defining characteristics of humanity to have a sense of obligation to help those in need.
The counter-genetic (not cultural) evolutionary nature of this altruistic imperative that all humans share (except for the sociopathic), is what largely convinced Francis Collins, author of The Language of God: A Scientist Present Evidence for Belief, the scientific leader of the human genome project and professed atheist to forsake atheism. For the purposes of this discussion it doesn’t matter if the guilt is based on religious concepts of moral conscience such as the Light of Christ, the Holy Ghost, or on nonreligious morality caused by cultural inculcation.
Rather, the issue is not whether we have these feelings of guilt, but what do we do about them? The pain itself doesn’t provide any guidance. We must use reason to determine the course of action.
In a traditional communal society, exemplified by a close-knit, isolated farming village, the most appropriate guilt-motivated response to the perceived need is often acutely apparent. (Provide food, shelter, clothing, etc.)
In a modern distributed society where personal relationships are far flung and increasingly virtual, the most appropriate guilt-motivated response to the perceived need is chronically abstruse.
Recognizing this, our feelings of guilt are often followed by a sense of powerlessness to really help, an awareness that the problems of those in need is greater than one person can solve. To do so could exhaust our resources and plunge us into the same state as those we would choose to help.
In the above mentioned discussion, the first commenter took one approach to address this powerlessness:
…charities will never be stable enough, large enough, with the full capability required, to help all, or at least most, of the poor of any given country. They will always lag behind the capability of governmental programs…The beauty is that, because I am one of 300 million, my cost to providing these wonderful services is low. I can go on living my life knowing that I have helped out millions of people without breaking my own bank or anyone else’s bank.
What’s interesting about this statement is not that he claims the efficaciousness of government programs in actually elimating poverty and need, but that government programs assuage his guilt without his own personal sacrifice — whether they necessarily solve the problem or not.
We call this Government As Guilt Assuager (GAGA), where in the primary attraction of government programs is to simultaneously relieve the pain of our guilt without causing pain by taking a too big bite out of our personal resources.
The criteria for popularity and support for the government program is not its efficacy in eliminating poverty but its relative cost effectiveness in alleviating the pain of the associated guilt.
GAGA is particularly insideous because we believe that having the pain of guilt — a fundamental motivator to human action — should not be removed by governmental programs unless they actually alleviate the suffering of the needy.
The insidiousness does not stop there, as the deleterious side effects of taking resources from the private sector to fund government programs have many unintended and harmful consequences than can make the government programs on net counter productive. And too often those effects aren’t recognized.
Given that trillions have been poured into the “war on poverty” over the past decades — only to see the poverty rate rise — we believe that the onus should be on those proposing more of the same, to show that more, or even the status quo, is really an appropriate and efficient use of resources.
GAGA is a narcotic for the liberal masses. They can feel good about having helped the needy at little personal cost — even though government programs have not demonstrated a long term reduction in the suffering of the needy.
The proper role of government is not to make people feel better for doing little or nothing.
[We welcome thoughtful disagreement and contrasting points of view. Ad hominem and general snark will be deleted without comment.]