I have heard it said by many people that if the government provides for the needs of society through its social services, there will no longer be any need for charity. Yet, we are called to charity, and therefore, we must not allow governments to interfere in our acts of charity. There is something very mixed up with this notion. It is perverting the very nature of charity, twisting it in a way to make sure there will be people who are suffering, so that they can be the objects of our good will. We are being told we cannot wish for a more just society because if such a society exists, charity will vanish.
But this cannot be the case, can it?
What exactly is the aim of charity but love? Love can be manifest in many ways; when someone is in dire straights, love seeks to help them out of it. But that is not all love seeks for them. Indeed, does a husband or wife love their family less after they have provided for their family’s needs? Certainly not! If we would not look at our family relationship in this way, why do we look at the world in this fashion?
Charity is caritas, love; to act in charity is to follow the dictates of love. Charity seeks for the betterment of others; in doing so, it recognizes that the most immediate need should be taken care of first (food, shelter, clothing, health, quality of life, etc). If these are taken care of, this does not diminish the need for charity: it provides room for greater forms of charity, for greater forms of love.
Now, I don't think that, "Where will that leave charity," is a universally good answer to suggestions of instituting social services. In a society which is already weak and uncohesive, there's clearly a need for some minimal level of social services. The legitimate question to be argued between political factions is what the appropriate extent and form of social services should be -- not whether there should be any at all. (If you're unsure of this, ask yourself if you'd really support closing government homeless shelters and food assistance, abolishing unemployment, or eliminating the federal deposit insurance that assures that if your bank runs into problems your saving account doesn't vanish over night. The sight of people literally dying in the street was not uncommon 150 years ago in many parts of what is now the developed world, and the fact that we've largely eliminated that -- though social programs as well as through charity -- is certainly not a bad thing.)
However, I think the above blockquote shows a fairly common progressive misunderstanding of human nature and the nature of moral action, which it's important to recognize and counter if we're to come to a proper understanding of social and moral relationships.
It is suggested that since charity is love, it clearly goes far beyond providing people with physical necessities. And so, even if we are not responsible for providing people with physical necessities, we need not worry about charity losing its place in our social relationships. What I think this misses is that we are, as humans, incarnational beings. We are not pure minds or pure souls, but mind and soul bound intimately to physical body. And as such, our physical actions are not only one way to express our love and relationship with others, but one of the primary things that forms our relationship with others.
Picture an extreme example of this: Imagine that at some future point it become a pressing political issue that nearly 10% of children are unparented and a shocking 30-50% are under-parented. Children are our future, and we cannot stand by while people neglect our future! No loving parent would want to see their children disadvantaged as a result of his or her not having time or training for proper parenting! A national parenting agency is established, and properly trained government workers will make sure that all children receive minimum levels of food, affection, personal interaction and age level appropriate conversation in intellectually stimulating and hygenic surroundings. Parents will, of course, not be sidelined. So long as they obey proper child rearing regulations, they are welcome to provide above-and-beyond care and gifts to their children, and they can even engage in primary care opportunities such as nightly read-alouds and tucking into bed, so long as they have suitable training to provide as rich and nurturing an experience as parenting agency workers would.
I think virtually everyone would see such a system as clearly dystopian, because it would disrupt a relationship which we see as fundamental to human society. People would talk about the state "seeking to replace parents" -- and in a practical sense this would be true to a certain degree. But more insidiously, such a program would strike at the very root of relationship between parent and child. This is because it is through the act of caring for our children that we as parents learn to love them. It is the knowledge that this small life is dependent upon us for all things which first awakes love in us. And it is the slow training in putting other before self which parenting involves -- the nights spent awake when one would rather sleep, the diapers changed, the games played, the knees bandaged, the stories told, the awkward performances watched, the living earned, the necessities and small luxuries bought -- that we tern that inclination to affection into a deep and active love. And if the necessity of that care was removed, I think it takes little imagination to see that this fundamental relationship would be blighted at its root. Indeed, we have a rather good test case of this looking at those times when it was common for rich parents to put the day-to-day raising of their children almost entirely in the care of a nurse maid -- which if the literature written by such societies is to be at all believed often left the relationship between the nurse and the children incredibly intimate, while the relationship between parents and children became distant.
A less outlandish example of the replacement of familial relationships with statist ones can be seen in our relationships with our parents. Working with a large number of recent immigrants from India, one of the biggest social differences that stands out when family interactions are discussed at work is that in Indian families it is expected that unless they are very rich, when parents retire they will go to live with one of their married children, or circulate from one filial household to another, staying at each for several months out of the year. This is practically unheard of in the US at this time, and it is frequent for US-born people around the office to say, when hearing about this, "I couldn't stand to have my parents visit for more than a week." However, such arrangements were far more common both in the US and in Europe before social programs to assure an independent income for the retired rendered such arrangements unnecessary. One can argue that longer distances make for closer families, and certainly, human nature being what it is, enforced closeness can lead to resentment instead of love, but I don't think it takes a great deal of imagination to see that this is a case where removing the need to care for each other in a practical and financial sense has allowed the erosion of social relationships.
Going beyond the family, and as I began my annual re-reading of Dickens' A Christmas Carol the other evening, I'm reminded of the famous exchange between Scrooge and the charitable gentlemen in Stave One:
"At this festive season of the year, Mr. Scrooge," said the gentleman, taking up a pen, "it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and Destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir."
"Are there no prisons?" asked Scrooge.
"Plenty of prisons," said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.
"And the Union workhouses?" demanded Scrooge. "Are they still in operation?"
"They are. Still," returned the gentleman, "I wish I could say they were not."
"The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?" said Scrooge.
"Both very busy, sir."
"Oh! I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course," said Scrooge. "I'm very glad to hear it."
"Under the impression that they scarcely furnish Christian cheer of mind or body to the multitude," returned the gentleman, "a few of us are endeavouring to raise a fund to buy the Poor some meat and drink and means of warmth. We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices. What shall I put you down for?"
"Nothing!" Scrooge replied.
"You wish to be anonymous?"
"I wish to be left alone," said Scrooge. "Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer. I don't make merry myself at Christmas and I can't afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned -- they cost enough; and those who are badly off must go there."
Quite the progressive in his own day, Dickens' view of social solidarity is the opposite the modern progressive outlook, in that he sees Scrooge's failure as being that of refusing to involve himself directly in supporting charitable work. Perhaps in an updated version, Scrooge would instead be asked to commit himself to gathering signatures to raise awareness of the necessity of opening a new and improved union workhouse funded via a tax on those in the top five percent of annual incomes. In the modern progressive pantheon, much greater virtue would be assigned to such advocacy for the many than for the more personal virtues of contributing to a fund for Christmas jollity for the poor, buying a prize turkey for a poor family, doubling Bob Cratchet's salary, or securing better care for Tiny Tim.
The danger of such an approach is that whereas we shall always have some contact with our families, even if we are not responsible for providing care in old age, unemployment, and distress for them. In the wider society, if we are absolved of any direct responsibility for helping to provide for those suffering in our neighborhoods or parishes, we are more likely than not simply never to encounter them at all. Expanding social services fund a contracting of our social sphere to only those whom we wish to see, since we are told that, like so many Scrooges, we should pay our taxes and rely upon the workhouses and the poor law to do their work. When real actions are no longer required, our relationships, which are formed by our actions, will soon shrivel quietly away.
This is why the Amish, hardly a group known for lacking solidarity with those in their community who are in need, eschew both government programs such as social security and medicare and also private insurance, using instead a direct community fund from which they pay for medical care and other emergency expenses on a case by case basis.
In the wider world, our communities are already far more fractured than those of the Amish, so we would be foolish to immediately abandon all the mechanisms we have developed for securing basic necessities for those in need in a mobile and fragmented society. At the same time, however, we must not allow ourselves to imagine that, when we place ever more needs under the maintenance of massive programs paid for through taxes, that we diminish our social solidarity and our relationships with others.