Dwight Writes


Why government cannot be a charitable organization.

Our diocesan weekly newspaper features a bi-weekly article by a priest on the subject of justice. Reading his article, which I always do, I get the impression that he would be quite happy if the government would stop fighting wars, and put the money to better uses, like making more subsidized housing available, or providing everyone with health insurance. I would not be surprised if he looked favorably on the recent law passed in Massachusetts regarding health insurance for all.
I understand his concern for the poor. I share that. What I find misguided is his insistence that government be a part of the answer to all social problems. After the misguided War on Poverty, and the well-meaning welfare programs of the recent past, why isn't it clear that government is unable to provide the answers. Yet, when speaking with someone who advocates government assistance of varying kinds as the solution to problems of poverty, one instead hears that the private sector cannot handle the problem (impoverished as it is by excessive taxes); the government is really the only element in society large enough to handle such an enormous set of problems. Somehow these people do not see the problems inherent in charity-by-government.
First of all, consider this: if it is the government's responsibility to help the poor, then my part of the good that might be accomplised by government programs is finished when my taxes are paid. I have no personal responsibility to the poor. My taxes are paid: I've done my part.
Second, government is about force and coercion. It is about doing the things that no other segment of human society can accomplish, such as war (defense) and dealing with other countries as one nation to another. But helping the poor? Government may be able to set up a bureaucracy and pass out money, but it cannot do it with caring. That requires a human soul reacting, not to government mandate, but in response to the love of God. Government cannot do this. Government cannot care. And caring is what is needed when it comes to giving support to those who cannot care for themselves. Government aid to the poor is charity-by-coercion; taxes are hardly freewill offerings.
Third, government cannot judge need. The most seasoned bureaucrat cannot distinguish between real need and the clever scammer. It doesn't have time for that. It isn't in their job description. That too requires a person who cares. Tough love still requires the ability to love. Government-as-charity is inherently inefficient.
If none of this has convinced you, let's ask the commnonly-heard question: what would Jesus do? We don't have to guess about this. Did Jesus command his followers to give away their money to... the government, to give to the poor? Could Jesus, on Palm Sunday, have said yes to those who wanted him to ascend to David's throne, and have shown us how government is done in a definitive way? If government was the answer to social justice and poverty, wouldn't Jesus have shown that by his actions regarding government?
Oddly (from the point of view of those who think government programs are the answer instead of the problem) Jesus seems kind of cool to government. Sure, he did say to give to Caesar what is Caesar's, but he could have been merely pointing out the importance of respect for a person's property. Yes, he had a kingdom, though not of this world, and not one that anyone was forced to be subject to. (Now, that is an interesting model for government!)
No, the answer to social justice and poverty is not more government, but much, much less. If government did not take over 25% of GNP, we would have a lot more to take from our own pockets to give directly to those in need. Then the responsibility would be back where it belonged. Then the principals of solidarity and subsidiarity would be addressed in truth. Then charity would indeed be love freely given, and justice would spring from the heart.


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