I believe that an Obama presidency is better equipped to serve the broad Catholic social justice agenda than a McCain presidency. I despair of effectively making this arguement in comboxes, but I’ll give it a go: 1. Neither candidate comes even close to embracing the Catholic social ethic; 2. One, Obama, shows promise of challenging the reigning ethic of individualism and autonomy that holds sway in this country and advocates many positions that would address economic explanations for resorting to abortion; 3. The other, McCain, endorses legal protection for the unborn but is more inclined to uphold the individualistic, autonomy-focused ethic that weakens bonds of mutual obligation; 4. A transformation away from individualism and autonomy toward community and reciprocal obligation is the only soil in which a truely prolife ethic can grow; 5. In the last analysis, even with restrictive legislation, no woman can be effectively compelled to give birth so the issue is which candidate can *simultaneously* inspire cultural changes that will encourage the reemergence of this ethic and prepare the way for protective legislation; 6. So, whether we like it or not, it’s all about hearts and minds and I submit that restrictive legislation initiated without cultural support could well swing the broad, ambivalent middle permanently agaist legal protection.One of the broadly held generalizations (and true enough that it's useful at times) about our political spectrum in the US is the conservatives want to see less government and less taxes, while progressives want to see more government programs designed to help those less fortunate in society, and higher taxes to fund those programs. Based upon this generalization, it is often argued by more politically progressive Christians that conservatives have a highly individualistic philosophy, while progressives' desire for more government intervention to help the less fortunate represents an appreciation for "community and reciprocal obligation".
My question is: Is this true?
My contention is: No, it's not. Indeed, the reverse is the case.
Let us examine...
I'd like to start with a couple of examples, the first of which I'll take directly from my own life.
When we had been married a few years, things came to a crisis point with the care of my paternal grandmother. My grandfather had died several years before, and grandma was in increasingly poor health, not able to get around by herself well. My dad was her only surviving child, and he was in the middle of chemo therapy. Her niece, who had been living with her for several years to provide in-house care, had to move back to Colorado to help one of her own children. So two options lay before us: We could put grandma into a nursing home, an idea which she absolutely hated but which medicare would pay for, or MrsDarwin and I could move in with her to provide full time care -- despite having a one-year-old and MrsDarwin being pregnant.
We did the latter. It was a difficult period, though in the end it was much shorter than we expected, because grandma died (in her own house, as she had always wished) not much more than a month after we moved in.
This is, I think, exactly the sort of community and mutual obligation that we all agree our culture needs more of: The older generation helping to rear the young, the young in turn taking care of the old. All too often, people are "too busy" and older relatives are left along, whether in their own homes or in "group homes".
How does this relate to progressive versus conservative approaches to social services? Well, by offering to pay for nursing home care, medicare essentially sends the message "You can save yourself a lot of trouble" (and believe me, caring for a very elderly relative is not only hard work, but puts serious stresses both on the caretakers directly and on the wider network of family) "by putting your elderly relatives in nursing homes, and we'll foot the bill." (Actually, I forget at this moment whether it was medicare or medicaid which was involved. We dealt with the cleaning and lifting and bedpan changing, not the paperwork. But I think the point remains the same.) By removing the cost from what would, in our case, have been the selfish choice (put her in a home and not have to bother, even though there was someone in the family able to provide care in the home), government social programs essentially encourage an individualistic, selfish approach to these matters. Clearly, such funding is needed by some people. There are families in which no one is available to provide the needed care for an elderly relative, and the money is not available to pay for a nursing home out of pocket. Nevertheless, we must admit that in the process of provided the much needed help to those who have no other option, the program also radically reduces the incentive to personally care for the elder generation.
Let's consider an imaginary, but I think fairly realistic, example now: A seventeen year old girl, already doing poorly in high school, finds herself pregnant. Let's assume that, contrary to certain pressures, she is committed to bringing her child to term and raising the child herself. Two paths are possible:
1) Her family and friends rally round to provide her with support. Her family moves people around in their small house to make sure she and the baby have a room to themselves, and her parents, siblings and friends provide free childcare so that she can go back to finish her high school degree and get some job training. Everyone chips in to pay for baby clothes and other baby equipment. After a couple years, she gets a good enough job that she and her baby are able to move into their own apartment, though they still rely heavily on her parents and relatives for childcare.
2) Instead of her family, she turns to the government. She's able to get into public housing and get food stamps to supplement her meager income. She's lucky to be able to finish high school at one of the few campuses in her city which provides a free childcare center, and she's able to collect government assistance (monetary and subsidized childcare) for a year while she gets some job training. Finally she lands a better job and is able to move out of subsidized housing, though she still needs subsidized childcare in order to meet her work schedule.
In situation 1, we see true community and mutual obligation at work. In situation 2, we don't so much. Sure, the government money came from people's taxes which means that in theory all 300 million other residents of the US were meeting their "mutual obligations" by helping her, but none of them really knew it. Everyone continued to wish that they paid less taxes, and no one really knew whom their tax dollars went to help. However, the mere existence of such programs effectively imposes a penalty on families that do act as in example 1 rather than as in example 2. Imagining that the girl's family in 2 could have helped her, but either did not want to or she preferred a greater degree of independence, they ended up with more disposable time and income because they weren't directly helping her. Perhaps their taxes were a little higher, but as far as their direct actions go, they were left with their money and free time. The girl also gets some benefits by going the government route: she gets her own individual place to live, rather than going through the inevitable stresses that come from lots of people sharing the same quarters, and the strife the often results when hard-working people are constantly having to give more time and help to each other. She is able to have a more individualistic lifestyle if she moves out with the help of anonymous government help.
Now let me be very, very clear: I am not saying that medicare and government help to single mothers should not exist. In many circumstances, providing the necessary help from within available family and/or immediate community resources is impossible. Many families simply do not have enough time and resources to give to meet the needs before them. And many people do not have loving families to fall back on.
But the above reasons why we starting building a centralized, governmental set of social services basically boils down to: sometimes mutual obligation and community action can't provide enough services to certain people, and so to get around these breakdowns we set up a government system designed to be more fair. In other words, we have a government social services infrastructure because we don't trust community and mutual obligation to get the job done. And yet, one of the side effects of setting up such a social services structure is that it serves to undercut community and mutual obligation by making them less necessary.
This is the part of the argument that people seem to either lose track of or disagree with, so indulge me while I focus on it for a bit longer.
Imagine for a moment that there are no social services at all. In both the case of an elderly relative needing care and a young single mother needing housing, childcare and education, family would be the first source of help for the individual. Failing the family, friends and neighbors and fellow parishioners might be turned to. Given a large group of people, there are always going to be some families that need help, and so one of the main ways that friends, neighbors and parishioners saw each other would be through efforts to help out one person or another. And the knowledge that help in times of trouble primarily comes from such sources would give people a strong incentive to help: you help others now so that they will want to help you in turn when you are in need. So providing help to members of the community provides both community social outlet and a very strong incentive to keep up community ties.
However, people observe (in this imaginary world) that this community-based approach to providing social services does not always work. If a family is divided or abusive, they don't help each other. Poor neighborhood and parishes don't have enough resources to help everyone in need. And sometimes unpopular people don't receive the help that they should, because no one feels like helping them. There's just not enough consistency in how help is given out, and so a government social services system is put in place in order to fill the gaps. People will still help each other, of course, but the government will help out when that isn't enough.
Now there's a safety net when the community doesn't do its job well enough. That's great, right?
Well, it is, to an extent. But the fact that there is now a safety net for when the community doesn't come through means that now people don't have to try as hard at community. If you're really busy or really hard up for money, you don't need to worry about helping out when the rest of the community is chipping in to help someone, because if they later express their displeasure by not helping you when you're in trouble, you can turn to the government. And if someone's need is really huge, and the community would have to give out of their need instead of just their excess in order to help, well they can sit back and keep in mind that the government will pick up the slack.
Mutual obligation becomes more and more optional, until the point when we have a sea of individuals who are totally dependent on the government for a safety net should things go wrong. Sound familiar?
I don't think there's a simple answer to this problem. Once the cultural assumption that communities should take care of their own is gone, you can't just take the government social services away and expect people to help each other. The cultural machinery and habits for doing so are gone. And even when those habits and institutions are there, they're imperfect. People are not consistent, and they're not always virtuous. So in the absence of a completely "fair" government system, some people who need help will inevitably not get it. And yet, if you provide enough services to fill that gap, you remove the incentives for communities to provide their own social services in the first place.
So I'm not here to argue that we should take away the social services that we have, though I'm sure we could all agree that (the world being as imperfect as it is) there must be better ways to do what we're already doing. However, I do think we need to break out of the idea that conservatives are all radical individualists while progressives all believe in mutual obligation. Certainly, there are some conservatives who when they say "fewer taxes and less government" have no intention of using the greater freedom they are left with to help their fellow men; but at the same time, there are a great many progressives from whom the "let's tax everyone to provide this service" is simply a way of saying, "I refuse to provide help myself unless I know that everyone else is paying his fair share too."
True community and mutual obligation is when people help other people, not when help is distributed to other people through the taxing and spending of an anonymous bureaucratic organization. And yet true community involves rough human edges and failings that, in all honestly, many of us do not really want to accept. We would rather have the dehumanized consistency that bureaucratic organizations provide.