Tuesday, April 17, 2012

How I Sooth My Illiberal Soul

My greatest fear is that someone will think me liberal. Or worse yet, a Liberal. Liberalism has suffered lately at the hands of those whose hatred of it is largely, I’m convinced, a reaction to their fears of what a truly liberal world would take from them – would require of them. So Liberals – and some liberals (small “l”) – have taken to calling themselves Progressives. There are not the same thing.

A great number of those who now decry Progressivism (it didn’t take long for them to discern that “Progressives” were merely “Liberals” in sheep’s clothing) are themselves progressive in many aspects of their lives. They want the latest and best medical treatment. They like to drive the most modern cars. They carry the latest smart phone. They line up to see the most recent Broadway hit, or box office sensation. Those who can afford it trick out their homes with elevators to raise their cars from one level to the next, with wireless transmission of sound and video, and with the most sophisticated computer equipment. The latest surveillance equipment protects them from intrusion. I could go on but I think the point is made. They are not anti-progressive or anti-liberal when it comes to supplying their own needs or satisfying their wishes.

So what is it about Liberalism (or Progressivism) that they don’t like? Mostly it is the fear that they will be required to support programs that aid the poor at government expense or, more specifically at taxpayer expense. They are willing, they assure us, to liberally support the same people whom the government now supports, willingly, if the government would just let them keep control of “their own money.” Private charity, they argue, is better at meeting the needs of the needy than big government with its overly generous handouts.

Now I’ve never figured out why, if I were down and out, I’d rather have my neighbor – whomever that might be if I were homeless – give me a free meal than have the government do so. To a homeless man, a meal is a meal is a meal. But the argument is that private charity is not as corrosive of human initiative as is government charity. Private charity is more discriminating, we’re told, giving aid only to the deserving, only that which is needed, and only until the person can get back on their feet.

Fair enough if that worked. As an aside I’ll just say that we had almost two centuries in which such charity was given a chance to eliminate poverty through the promotion of responsible living. Finally, in the 1930s, during the Great Depression, we began to understand that the problem was larger than the capacity of faith-based and other private charity could accommodate. Further we realized that those approaches, while commendable and necessary, often failed to reach certain segments of the population that the philanthropic organization deemed unworthy or simply could not see on their radar screen – blacks, migrant workers, mentally ill or those addicted to substance abuse.

So, if private charity is able to weed out the ne'er-do-wells, in ways that government programs are not designed to do, that means that those deemed “unworthy” of aid would go without. According to the theory, they would then take a bath and get in the employment line where those who refused them a free meal would now gladly hire them to watch their children or clean their house or tend their lawn or work in their factory. And of course they will pay them adequate wages so that they can support their families. Not, of course in the same style as their “liberal” benefactors wish to live; that style of living is reserved for the truly industrious. Problems solved.

I hope I’m making it clear that the problems of the unemployed, the unemployable, the handicapped, the mentally ill, the displaced, and the innocent dependents of those just named, are complex and usually beyond the ability of ordinary people, no matter how generous or well intentioned, to either understand or remedy. Even if every dollar taken from unwilling taxpayers to be used by the government for social welfare purposes were willing turned to the same purpose through individual charity or faith-based charity, or other private charity, it would not eliminate the problems of poverty in our land. But of course, only a fraction of the amount now extracted from taxpayers would actually find its way to charitable work. Human nature is what it is, taxation or no taxation.

I am not as liberal as my Christian faith should require me to be. I do not stop to give a dollar to every person standing on the street corner with a cardboard sign. I do not always buy the Veteran’s plastic flower. I do not put money in the Salvation Army kettle each time I pass it. And I routinely throw away solicitations that come daily in the mail from varied charities. And the reason I am so parsimonious is not because the government is taxing me to death. It is primarily because I cannot distinguish between those who are truly in need and those who are making a business of being in need.

But I do consider myself liberal in this sense; I gladly allow the government to tax me for the purpose of assisting those who meet the criteria for assistance that have been developed to determine who should and should not qualify for aid. It sooths my guilty conscience a little bit, each time I drive by the “homeless man” with the cardboard sign, to know I’ve already given at the “government office,” and that if he is truly in need, and willing to present himself at the correct office, some of my dollars are waiting there for him.

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