"For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor. 10:3-5).
This is a bit of a cheeky way to respond to a thoughtful and well-written essay by the president of the American Enterprise Institute, Arthur Brooks, that appears in the latest issue of Commentary magazine called "Be Open-Handed Toward Your Brothers". The title itself comes from Deuteronomy 15:11; hence my Biblical rejoinder to Brooks' own Biblical injunction -- as you can guess I'm not totally convinced by his vision of what Commentary calls "a conservative social-justice agenda".
Brooks essential argument boils down to this: conservatives know that liberal solutions to poverty are failing, but it is not enough to simply stand up and oppose these misguided liberal schemes. Conservatives should also propose our own solutions to the problems of poverty and this essay serves as his own (presumably conservative) solution. He calls his solution a "positive social justice agenda for the right" and groups it into three "pillars" of ideas: transformation, relief and opportunity. I will say a few brief words of criticism about all three pillars.
My favorite idea, the first pillar, is what Brooks calls "moral transformation". The idea is summarized as follows:
By now, everyone acknowledges that poverty in America is often intertwined with social pathologies. In the late 1990s, scholars at the Urban Institute estimated that up to 37 percent of individuals enrolled in Aid to Families with Dependent Children abused drugs or alcohol. Similar findings connect poverty with criminality, domestic violence, and other problems.
Whether these problems are a product of poverty or mutually causal, common sense and the testimony of the poor themselves say that moral intervention must precede economic intervention for the latter to be truly effective.
To be sure, many of our poor neighbors lead happy, upright lives full of faith, family, community, and fulfilling work. But to deny that these are disproportionately missing in poor communities today is to shove aside the facts and ignore an undeniable if inconvenient truth. Transforming the character and values of individuals and communities is essential to genuinely helping those in need. To say otherwise is to contradict their own testimonials.
This, not puritanism or bourgeois condescension, is the reason that conservatives must promote and defend the time-tested stores of personal and social meaning. To presume that low-income Americans are somehow unworthy of the same cultural standards to which we hold ourselves and our own families is simple bigotry. Genuine moral aspiration, not patronizing political correctness, will be the tip of the spear in a true social-justice agenda.
The problem is that this is easier said than done, and indeed, Brooks offers no real concrete policy ideas to bring this transformation about. That's why I quoted the Biblical passage I did (and perhaps that's why the blogger Bruce Charlton bangs on about salvation so much -- either people repent and come to Christ (with all that entails) or we'll continue to see sexual perversion, broken marriages, despair, etc.) However, I actually wouldn't rule out all government action -- a lot of current public policy is actually harmful to morality, so it might be better to think of actions the government can take here to stop preventing moral transformation from taking place (e.g. supporting out-of-wedlock mothers).
Next Brooks discusses material relief. He has a number of interesting things to say, including this about private charity:
As I found in my 2006 book Who Really Cares, the average conservative household contributes significantly more to charity than does the average liberal household despite earning less income. According to the 1996 General Social Survey, those who strongly agreed that “the government has a responsibility to reduce income inequality” gave away $140 on average to charity. Among those who strongly disagreed, the average gift was $1,637.
Of the 10 most charitable states in 2012, as ranked by the Chronicle of Philanthropy, nine went for Romney over Obama. Three times as many red states as blue states placed in the top 20 states in giving. And all but one of the 10 least charitable states swung President Obama’s way.
Why do conservatives give more? The research shows that the largest charity differences owe to religious participation. We see that religious liberals are approximately as generous as their conservative co-religionists. But there are far more religious conservatives today than religious liberals, so the political gap persists.
It would be wonderful if America could solve all problems of poverty and need through private charity. We can and should give even more, and conservatives must continue to lead by example. But even in this remarkably charitable country—where voluntary giving alone exceeds the total GDP of nations such as Israel and Chile—private donations cannot guarantee anywhere near the level of assistance that vast majorities of Americans across the political spectrum believe is our moral duty.
Consider the present total that Americans give annually to human-service organizations that assist the vulnerable. It comes to about $40 billion, according to Giving USA. Now suppose that we could spread that sum across the 48 million Americans receiving food assistance, with zero overhead and complete effectiveness. It would come to just $847 per person per year.
Or take the incredible donation levels that followed Hurricane Katrina in 2011. The outpouring of contributions exceeded $3 billion, a record-setting figure that topped even the response to the attacks of September 11, 2001. But even this historic episode raised enough to offset only 3 percent of the costs the storm imposed on the devastated areas of Louisiana and Mississippi. Voluntary charity simply cannot get the job done on its own.
Here I'm going to disagree with Brooks, because he assumes that charity "cannot get the job done" (assuming we all agree on what that job is) -- but his assumption is based on the status quo 'locked in' as it were -- what if we changed the status quo? That's what he proposes to do with all sorts of other public policies (see below) so why not change the charitable deduction? Why not see how Americans respond when the federal government stops supporting welfare programs? Who's to say we won't change our giving to double or triple that $40 billion number? And who's to say the need will be as great with a more dynamic and growing economy (which is what other conservative reforms will presumably achieve as well)? Brooks is too quick to dismiss the power of charity and too quick to assume a static model of the world when it suits his purposes.
Brooks goes on to propose a number of different intriguing reforms to our labor policies coupled with what he suggests should be our proper attitude toward federal safety net programs:
First, there is nothing inherently wrong with safety-net programs, be they SNAP, housing support, or Medicaid. Second, they must be designed and administered in ways that fight fiercely against dependency. And third, the safety net’s ultimate goal cannot be the perpetual subsistence of poor Americans in barely tolerable lives. We can aim at nothing less than real human flourishing.
Allow me to offer up a firm rebuke to the idea that there is "nothing inherently wrong with safety-net programs" -- the question should be is a program like SNAP Constitutional? If not, then there is something inherently wrong with it and it needs to be redesigned to fit better for America's Constitutional order (and I would argue, here from a Catholic perspective, the program should be redesigned anyway to meet the needs of the idea of subsidiarity). So maybe we will have a food stamp program -- but if we do there will be a California program, a Wyoming program, a Rhode Island program, a Florida program, etc.
Finally, Brooks discusses "opportunity" in the context of education policy. I will say only this: while I support the idea of breaking up public school monopolies, I do so not because I think choice will be some magic panacea to the problems of inner-city poverty. Folks like Brooks are too blinded by ideology to ignore what the wonderful blogger, Education Realist (she's a liberal in case you were wondering), calls the Voldemort View: "Mean differences in group IQs are the most likely explanation for the academic achievement gap in racial and SES groups." In which case, all the education reform in the world will only do so much for the poor (with respect to raising their test scores -- there are a lot of other things we can focus on like character education, skills education, etc. that would actually provide moral and practical help to those individuals with lower IQs).
Brooks closes with some interesting thoughts, thoughts that really don't fit with the previous piece. He says,
This agenda [his three pillars] will do the most good for the most people—and revive the conservative movement. For too long, conservatives have identified themselves as fighting against things, perpetually making war on the left’s mistaken priorities. They fight against punitive taxes, creeping overregulation, wasteful spending, licentious culture, and ruinous national debt.
There is no reason to repudiate the ideology behind these fights. But these second-order policy fights are not intrinsic to a better nation; they are merely instrumental. The central, motivating purpose of conservative philosophy is not fighting against things. It is fighting for people.
Fighting for people doesn’t mean a catalog of massive government programs. It means thinking carefully about who is in need and how their need can best be met. In some cases, such as caring for the truly poor and defending our allies around the world, the right solution may well involve the government. In others—such as a crumbling culture, needy children caught in ineffective schools, entrepreneurs struggling to start businesses, or people permanently dependent on the state—the proper conservative answer is for the government to stop creating harm and get out of the way. In both cases, conservatives can and should be equally bold warriors for vulnerable people.
O.K., but why does the government always have to be the federal government (especially if all of those programs we are trying to reform are unconstitutional)? And why look to the government first, just because the liberals are doing so -- private charity has a better track record at transforming lives, so why not encourage more private charity -- more of us coming together to meet our neighbors' needs? I worry essays like Brooks will wind up just being another tool in the compassionate conservative's toolkit to expand big government and do more harm than good.