What’s Wrong with the World

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What’s Wrong with the World is dedicated to the defense of what remains of Christendom, the civilization made by the men of the Cross of Christ. Athwart two hostile Powers we stand: the Jihad and Liberalism...read more

'For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh'

"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.

Comments (11)

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.

Well, no, that's not really what conservatism is in its core. The conservative qua conservative is not about fighting "for people", it is in fighting for the reality that people exist in a milieu, and that entails many, many customs which ought to be left alone or even positively defended from attack. That's why conservatives defend and "fight against" things that would change good, noble, worthy elements of the status quo. Conservatives as such are not about "solving problems" except insofar as some of those problems consist of damaging goods that are already present. Conservatives don't want to "fix" things that aren't broken.

Now, if something IS broken, a person who is a conservative may be willing to change it, but more so if he can change it without damaging good things around it - without collateral damage. Liberals don't much care about the collateral damage.

Because merely being a conservative doesn't express precisely WHICH social goods are present and need protecting, being a conservative cannot be a total package: there are more things in life than the sum total of social goods that exist right now. If society consists of capturing and murdering foreigners in human sacrifice (Aztecs), that's not something a conservative should want to defend merely as the status quo, because it does not reflect a true social good all the way down to bedrock (even if it does support some superficial social goods). So, in order for a conservative (or any socially reflective person) to be properly grounded, he has to have a valid view of the social good, and thus must support the natural law (at a minimum). So conservatism alone isn't a comprehensive worldview, one must add to it a view of what is "the good" for man to get that.

What a conservative who supports the natural moral law brings to the table is a view that grounds support of the existing social good in something deeper, something more vital to human flourishing than merely the individual goods supported by individual customs. That is that human moral good consists in good habits acted upon commonly, and good habits are supported by good customs. Custom supports virtue. Eradication of custom for flighty daily fashions damages social order and damages virtue.

Often left unaddressed is the fact that many liberal programs fail precisely because they are designed to have no controls or there is a complete lack of will to enforce them. For example, a report (Inspector General of SSA, IIRC) came out about Social Security Disability stating that approximately 25% of recipients are black letter of the law not qualified to receive it. There is neither a Christian nor a liberal justification for this refusal to obey the law by the bureaucrats that award it in direct and clear violation of the law. Yet pro-welfare Christians and liberals won't stand firmly against it. Sure, sure you'll see the occasional nod that "fraud is bad" but it's made out to be nothing. Well, the reality is that Social Security Disability has about 8 to 12 million people on it which means that 2 to 3 million people receiving it are criminals who are violating the rights of the tax payers AND stealing from the communal pot intended for the other 6 to 9 million that may genuinely need it.

But the real reason behind many liberals is simply to ensure that the recipient doesn't have to beg for help. That would render them less than equal before the persons who are providing the charity and give them the power to make receipt of the charity contingent upon changed behavior. We can't have that. Can't have people being told that if they refuse to even try to stop engaging in self-destructive behavior that they can enjoy the consequences of that behavior.

**Social Security Disability may also be the first major entitlement to go bankrupt. I believe it's slated to go bankrupt well ahead of Social Security proper and Medicare. The fraud is no small part of the reason why. Which reminds of me how the Pope recently castigated those who try to avoid paying taxes, but in this day and age we really need to see clergy rail against those lower and middle class people who dip into the system designed for the truly needy instead of the usual focus on those who try to lower their taxes.

I appreciate, Jeff, your being a voice crying in the wilderness re. state vs. federal "safety netting." It's something too few even on the right consider.

In a lot of ways I think Brooks's article did a good job at highlighting how the left's policies hurt the poor and how they never learn from this. He stresses the disaster of raising the minimum wage, for example. I still can't believe people think this is going to help rather than hurt! He also stresses the disaster of Obamacare.

But I agree that he is unthinking about state vs. federal when it comes to "safety net" and also is rather hazy on how much "government safety net" is really needed.

On school choice, I'm not an advocate of vouchers but am all in favor of charter schools. My perception, on which I'm willing to be corrected, is that charter schools have more flexibility when it comes to curriculum than other public schools (though Common Core may destroy this in the future) and more freedom to kick students out for disruption. This last is crucial. I think it's going to be very difficult to isolate the actual effects on education of IQ differences until we roll back the disastrous educational policies that are creating noise by making schools do stupid things like suspending students for eating pop-tarts shaped like guns while simultaneously not being able to kick out students who are truly dangerous and disruptive. None of this is the way it has always been and none of it is the inevitable result of low-IQ students. Low-IQ students are not inevitably disruptive if they are in a well-disciplined environment, but that is exactly what public schools have ceased to be. To the extent that charter schools are *at least* quieter, less violent or not violent, relatively more free of drugs, and the like, they will offer better opportunities to all students, and lower-IQ students need this atmosphere as much as or more than anyone.


Great comment about the natural moral law -- I suppose that language might be more helpful in today's secular America to convince our liberal neighbors of the errors of their ways; but in another sense, I'm saying the same thing when I say folks have to come to Christ and repent of their sins -- the Christian way of life is obviously open to the natural moral law and indeed, properly encompasses its teachings.

Mike T.,

I knew you would pop up and offer an appropriate comment -- spot on! Here is some more information on how broken the SSDI program has become:



Let me be clear -- I support flexibility 100% -- but why limit it to charters? And why not learn from charters that are successful what works and make public schools use those methods. In particular there is no question in my mind that proper discipline is key to the success of charters and/or any school that is going to be successful with a low-income population. As you say, a school has to be able to control the classroom and kick students out who are disruptive. Of course, liberals will scream "disparate impact", but this will also have a disparate (positive) impact on the same kids who we are trying to help -- poor black and Hispanic kids!!!

Jeff, I agree that breaking up the monopoly is more fundamental. Once the monopoly is gone, charter-type schools will have more opportunities, along with many other models. Vouchers or tuition tax credits (whether at the state or local tax level) can co-exist with charters, state-operated, state / private cooperative enterprises, and wholly private schools, as well as home-schools, co-ops, and some other in-between offerings. There is no reason to be bound to one line of attack. Personally, I would like to see someone offer - much in the line of employer-based day care - an employer-based day school that uses the employee-parents as teacher aides (or even as part time teachers), and get rid of Mom or Dad leaving work early to make sure they can pick up the kid at school (and drop them off at an empty home?). I can think of a number of Christian employers who could see the profitability of making such a perk available to their employees.

I don't see why IQ is an issue here. No matter what is the truth of IQ disparity in sub-groups of the population, nobody rational thinks that there is a group-based biologically inherited immorality disparity. And it is immorality that is the problem, not IQ. (Speaking aside from cultural disparity, that is. But I cannot see how changing school operations is going to improve a cultural disparity if one of the cultural differences is denigration of learning.)

I certainly don't think educational flexibility should be limited to charter schools, but as usual our country is going in exactly the opposite direction for non-charters and possibly for charters as well. As far as curriculum, Common Core may eliminate the flexibility even of charters. As far as discipline, pigs will fly before any significant number of ordinary public schools are actually exercising sensible discipline against unruly students. The system is ineliminably corrupt. I remember reading a magazine article about the "things your principal won't tell you." One of the things was something like, "We're not allowed to kick out bullies, because everyone has a right to an education." It was right there in black and white. In fact, if the regular public schools were to start kicking out violent kids, they would have to be sent to reform schools or something of that kind, because of mandatory education laws and also because understandably enough the citizens wouldn't want them left running wild all day. Inevitably you'd get some innocent kids accidentally lumped into the "bad kid" schools, and who would want to teach at the "bad kid" schools? I have a feeling there may be no good solutions here, so at least having *some* schools where they can send the disruptive kids packing is better than nothing.

By the way, you have a very good point about government encouraging life-harming behavior. Here I would include sex education classes as an exhibit, with the added irony that those running them think they are teaching helpful behavior.

Here's a question: To what extent can poor communities be helped by sheer tough law enforcement? If all the pimps and gangstas, etc., were actually *sent to jail* for long terms, if the death penalty were brought back for murder, if no considerations of political correctness or "disparate impact" were allowed to get in the way of normal law enforcement efforts for real crimes, to what extent would this reverse the disastrous trends in the poor communities? Or even if law enforcement were carried out on the "broken window" principle for smaller things--for vandalism, for example? But instead we read stories about "flash mobs" of kids invading convenience stores and stealing everything, or gangs taking over 7-11's (that type of store) and the police saying they won't come and evict the trespassers. I cannot help picturing decent people in the inner cities wishing that the gangs and the bad guys would be cracked down on so that they could raise their children in a better atmosphere and so that businesses would find it profitable to come to their neighborhoods. Surely that is one way that government actually could help.

Jeff, what's your opinion on drug testing for receiving food stamps and AFDC?


A couple of points. With respect to education, of course I'm suggesting ideal policies, so I'm well aware of their political impractibility at the moment. But even a stricter discipline policy at public schools (or more charters) that allow the trouble-makers to be kicked out will need a sensible policy for the trouble makers -- I agree but could imagine some creative solutions including military-style academies, special boarding schools (which might be more expensive on a per-pupil basis than what we have now, but if it works to help these troubled kids then I would be willing to support such an endeavor), etc.

Concerning law enforcement you are spot on -- a good example is found in many New York neighborhoods that have seen economic redevelopment thanks to the revolution in policing there over the past 25 years (now threatened to be undone by their new liberal mayor).

Finally, I would think any state aid should come with all sorts of strings attached, drug testing included -- when liberals complain about welfare policy being paternalistic, that usually means you are doing it right ;-)

To what extent can poor communities be helped by sheer tough law enforcement? If all the pimps and gangstas, etc., were actually *sent to jail* for long terms, if the death penalty were brought back for murder, if no considerations of political correctness or "disparate impact" were allowed to get in the way of normal law enforcement efforts for real crimes, to what extent would this reverse the disastrous trends in the poor communities? Or even if law enforcement were carried out on the "broken window" principle for smaller things--for vandalism, for example?

Lydia, I agree with you. The prison population today (and number of prisons) is way too small and inadequate. Sentencing is too lenient. More prisons, longer sentences, prompt enforcement of the death penalty rather than extended periods on death row is what America needs to make it a country fit for decent people to live in once again. Stricter border controls and quick deportations would be additive to this.

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