Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Obligation vs. Individualism

I ran into the following argument in favor of pro-life Catholics supporting Obama in the comments of another blog the other day, and since it seems like the summary of a commonly held view (which I think is erroneous) I think it's worth taking a detailed look at:
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.


Anonymous said...

The Blackadder Says:

In one of Wilhelm Röpke's books, he recounts the story of a German MP who was arguing for more state spending on the elderly by recounting the horrible conditions in which her father lived. When one of the conservative MPs told her she ought to be ashamed at herself for letting her father live in such conditions, she was taken aback. It apparently hadn't occurred to her that she had an obligation to look after her father that went beyond pressing for more government services.

Kyle Cupp said...

One of Wilhelm Röpke's main points is that economic policies and practices cannot be divorced from a social moral framework and expect to achieve the ends of justice and happiness for which they are implemented. Whether we’re talking about the “free market solutions” or “government programs” the imperative is the same: we must be a moral people.

I agree with your thesis that conservatives are not all individualists and progressives are not all believes in mutual obligation. However, I’m uncertain about the notion that “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 can and does happen, but must it always be the case? Would it be possible for a community to make use of government social services and care for one another as a community without the former ultimately supplanting the latter?

I guess I’m wondering if it’s at all possible for government programs to be humanizing rather than dehumanizing.

Anonymous said...

John Brooks says:

Good points all DC, but I think you give the argument too much credit. The idea that a politician can challenge 'the reigning ethic of individualism and autonomy that holds sway in this country,' or enact a 'transformation from individualism and autonomy toward community and reciprocal obligation' doesn't pass the laugh out-loud test for me. The only surprise by the end was that unicorns weren't mentioned.

Whomever left that comment (and I resisted clicking the link because VN is like cable news channels - addictive but rarely helpful), seems to think that politicians are some sort of moral supermen, able to enact wholesale cultural revolution with a few new government programs (or, perhaps, speeches).

The poster dramatically overstates the role of the politician as a cultural agent of change. Only naivety or partisanship could lead to such a confident assertion electing a certain candidate will result in wholesale cultural change that will reduce the level of abortion, particularly when the candidate has made it quite clear he supports abortion. If politicians do have the power the commenter suggests, it also argues against electing Obama because of the cultural effect his pro-choice views would have on the country.

Darwin said...


I think you're clearly right that the baseline issue is that we must remain a virtuous people in order for any sort of institutions (free or centralized) to achieve anything good.

It seems to me that it must be possible to have governmental social service programs which do not undercut family and community, but I think you would have to be very, very careful in determining what sort of behavior they may accidentally incent, because it seems to me that often through virtuous instincts we set up programs which inadvertently incent people to be less virtuous. In this sense, a cynical economist may often have a much better idea of what will go wrong and a virtuous charity worker.

I suspect that in order to work well, a government social program probably has to be run more like a private charity -- and yet I'm not sure to what degree that's possible since everyone knows that the government's pockets are very deep. And so, people have very little guilt incentive to avoid taking any more help than they possibly can.


You may be right. I'd taken the comment to mean that Obama's promised tax cuts and new programs for the elderly and people with lower incomes would make us a more mutual obligation-based society. If, however, the commenter simply meant that Obama would use the "bully pulpit" to make us all want to be virtuous, then it's such a silly point as to be barely worth responding to, because as you say, such powerful inspiration from a modern politician is unlikely.

Anonymous said...

Dear DC:

I don't mean to be stalking you, but in follow up to this and your vox nova post, I still think you are a liberal just not aware of it!

In your example with the 17 year old girl, you say "Two paths are possible." The second path is not possible. Whatever myths exist about an expansive welfare state giving things away at every turn, there is no public housing available to a girl in such circumstances. There are federally funded, locally (usualy Church based) administered group and foster homes when such girls are asked to leave home but not public housing. And she would not be eligible for food stamps either. So path #2 is not a path that exists in reality.

As for path #1, the option for job training would be through government funded programs or labor union programs. There is no private sector financed job training program anywhere near where I live. Maybe they exist elsewhere, but its news to me.

I also remember when working for a labor union sponsored program in the 1980's promoting full employment, we had a political battle with the conservatives in our effort to change the rule that if you dropped out of high school and turned 18, you could not return. We prevailed over the conservatives so that is an option now most places (I'm sure there are laggards as well as a few progressive school districts that always welcomed back returning students.)

Anonymous said...

John Brooks says:

Re-reading the post (and actually following the link), I misread it earlier. Apologies for the misdirected

CMinor said...

John Brooks: Misdirected or not, your third paragraph crystallizes the fallacy behind the "prolifers for Obama" position.

I think your assessment was generally correct (if not in this instance) and well-stated.

I find myself wondering if folks who think this way would, say, buy a used car or choose a doctor or investment advisor based on the charisma, rather than the proven track record, of the prospect.

David said...


First of all, I enjoy dropping into a conversation where you are termed a liberal (the disguise is almost perfect by the way...) - but I found this at the FT website (part of a longer peice comparing US and European patterns of giving).

Brooks has uncovered other fascinating findings. In 2000, the Americans who attended a house of worship at least once a week were 25 percent more likely to give charitably than those who participated in a religious service less frequently or participated in no religion at all. Further, religious people donated nearly four times more in dollars per year than secularists. And religious persons were 23 percent more likely to volunteer their time.

Interestingly, households headed by a conservative gave 30 percent more dollars to charity in 2000 than households headed by a liberal, though liberal-headed households tend to have higher incomes. Both these facts—the higher income of leftists, and the greater giving by conservatives—run counter to the mythology that the left holds in both Europe and the United States.

Overall, Americans give hundreds of billions of dollars of their own money every year to universities, research institutions, clinics, private schools, churches, and thousands of private charities (both local and international). In 2006, Americans donated just over $295 billion dollars to charitable causes: about $223 billion in individual giving outright, $36 billion through philanthropic foundations, $22 billion through individual bequests at death, and $13 billion through business corporations. Since there are approximately 226 million adult Americans, this rate of private giving amounts to, on average, $1,300 per adult per year.

Developing this sense of responsibility in all citizens takes emphasis in churches, schools, media of communication, and specialized journals on philanthropy. It also requires laws and other actions by government to make incentives universally available through tax deductions; dollars given to recognized philanthropies are not taxable.

It seems that we have some real evidence to suggest that conservatives are a great deal more "communitarian" as a practical matter - 'tis all a matter of subsidiarity - and do read the first part of the article, because it shows how much, much more likely Americans of all incomes are to volunteer their time and money than our supposedly more communitarian European friends.



Darwin said...


What you're saying sounds a bit odd, given the people I've known who have spent time on food stamps and/or subsidized housing. Though I believe they were 19-20 at the time rather than 17, so perhaps the difference is that one must be 18 to receive benefits?

When I said "job training" I was thinking of the kind of community job training centers that I've seen both here and Texas and back in California (both privately and publicly run) which provide things like typing lessons, basic computer skills, etc. I suppose that unions and such might provide training that's more specific to particular jobs -- but then the ability of unions to provide jobs seems to be negative at a net level, so I'm not exactly impressed. (Actually, all of my own experiences with unions involve being told that you can't have a job because the union is trying to keep labor supply down -- but that's dealing specifically with the theatre related unions in LA.) I don't think many child care subsidies are currently available -- however I threw it in to my example since that's one of the number one things my progressive colleagues keep advocating in the way of new social services.

As for those over eighteen returning to public schools -- I guess I'd have to know the specifics to decide if I agreed with you or your conservative opponents. We already have the GED program and the community colleges (which are open to those with GEDs), and I could see some reasons why it would be problematic (from a discipline and social point of view) to having people much over 18 coming back into public high schools.

But if my general argument that social services allow us to lapse into a much more individualist society seems less than credible, think of this example: The Amish communities specifically refuse to use insurance or government programs that are paid for by people outside the community. They do this because they believe that with insurance and social services, their tight knit community would start to break down.

Would you say that the Amish generally have a stronger or weaker sense of community and mutual obligation than your average mainstream American?

I assume that your comment that I seem like a liberal at heart is meant as a compliment, so I thank you for it. You might also consider, however, that it's just that conservatives are not as stereotyped creatures as some imagine. Because whatever I am, when it comes to politics I usually find myself frustrated that the Republicans are not conservative enough -- not considering the other side of the aisle.

Darwin said...


Good to see you around more!

There's a book out by Brooks called Who Really Cares in which he goes into the details on charitable contributions by political identification in great detail. (I picked up a copy cheap at one point, but haven't had the chance to read it yet.)

Although the main source of the divide is that regular church goers overwhelmingly identify as conservatives, and regular church goers donate more money by far than any other group, the difference in giving goes far beyond money given to religious organizations. Apparently conservatives even donate more blood than liberals.

The lowest givers, apparently, are moderates. Showing, I suppose, that the worst temperature of all is lukewarm.

David said...

Dear Darwin,

Happy to be around on your consistently excellent blog - and leaving comments is a bit of vicarious blogging since I think I'm going to wait to get my own blog going. I don't think I should be leaving so wide a conservative pixel/google trail in a year I'm applying for grants (I've already used up a whole lot of luck evading the academic gate keepers whose failure to keep the likes of me from gaining tenure is a bit of a suprise. At the risk of too great a self-regard (oh, what the hell, if a freshman senator can aspire not only to be President but to lower the level of the ocean and finally see the sick healed in this country why can't I indulge in a little hubris) I hope that one day some of said gate-keepers will rue this as the year that I gained tenure).

Anyway, I think on the whole your dead right in your analysis on this post. I think in general the sense that the degree to which we expect or experience political authority and/or technology as having the key responsibility to alleviate or eliminate "burdens" associated with family, the less able we will be to cope with such burdens. Do check out the excellent article by Gilbert Meilaender "I want to burden my loved ones" at (I think I might have recommended this to you before - apologies if I have).

Take care, przyjaciol.


Anonymous said...

John Brooks says:

David - nice to see you on-line! Congratulations on tenure and good luck with the grant process. I am sure that the academic gatekeepers will be appropriately rueful. Hopefully your long-rumored blog will materialize in the not-too-distant future.

Anonymous said...

From the original comment you quoted:

"Obama shows promise of challenging the reigning ethic of individualism and autonomy that holds sway in this country...."

The trouble with this logic is that the Catholic social ethic is not based on the same things Obama's ethic is based on. They are like birds and bats: Externally, there seem to be some similarities, but internally, they are completely different. The Catholic social ethic is based on serving God by serving each other. The change the commenter is hoping for is superficial compared to that ethic.