As conservative Republicans work to eliminate or reduce the amount of money New Hampshire spends on government programs, critics on the political left have emerged from time to time with the idea that these policies are immoral—or as one outspoken critic said, “morally repugnant.”
This criticism is predicated on a belief that only government can provide for the basic needs of people who can’t provide for themselves. We agree that people need to take care of one another. It is our moral obligation. But it’s not government’s job to do it. In fact, one of the best things about American history is how well we have taken care of one another, even before the federal government launched its “War on Poverty” or created programs such as Medicaid or Obamacare.
Alexis de Tocqueville, a French political thinker and historian who traveled to America in the 1830s, wrote that one of the strengths of 19th Century America was its “robust civil society,” which he defined as the institutions, such as the family, the church and other secular civic organizations, that operated between the individual and the government. He praised these institutions, explaining how they tempered the isolating tendencies of individualism and the “despotic proclivities of centralized [government] administration.”
Unfortunately, civil society has significantly declined in the past several decades because government has overwhelmed, and in some cases taken over, these institutions using our tax dollars to fund and direct them. We can observe this in the entitlements given to poorer families, the grants given to our nonprofit organizations, the “compassionate conservatism” that added new public grants to assist church-sponsored charity and all the rules and laws that these institutions must follow to keep the money flowing.
It is precisely the absence of that money and those rules and laws that make private charities more effective than government programs. Private charities are run at lower costs with the help of volunteers and private donors who give only to those organizations they believe are the most effective. These charities are comprised of neighbors helping neighbors; not government officials handing out money that doesn’t belong to them to people they don’t know. And because it is neighbors helping neighbors, any fraud or abuse is diminished because the act of giving is a powerful tie that binds, making it much more difficult for those receiving aid to take advantage of the generosity of those who serve them.
When centralized government administration is responsible for “service” in society, as it is today, this severs the individual ties of service and charity that have traditionally held us together for our mutual private benefit and the good of society as a whole. Individuals have resultantly become more isolated and selfish as government has moved in to redistribute wealth according to a single, centralized understanding of morality that is demonstratively incorrect.
In fact, the liberals and “progressives” who subscribe to the idea that government must provide for others have suffered the greatest impact on their own morality. According to the report, “Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth About Compassionate Conservatism,” Syracuse University Professor Arthur C. Brooks found that conservative-headed households give, on average, 30 percent more to charity than the average liberal-headed household, even though liberal households tend to average incomes 6 percent higher than those of conservative families. His study also found that conservatives donate more time and give more blood.
A true understanding of practical reality shows that conservative Republicans, who want to reduce the programs run by government, are actually more in tune with civil society and the individual moral strength that develops when people are free to keep what they earn and dispense it how they see fit. It is the conservative understanding that respects the dignity of the human person and values his or her work as well as the products and services derived from it. This is the philosophy that encourages people to be more creative and industrious, which results in innovations that fill real needs in society. It is also the understanding that produces wealth and allows individuals to serve others out of the goodness of their own hearts. There is nothing more moral than this.
Conservatism also fosters the organic growth of charitable organizations, which allows society to fill its own needs as they arise. It sustains those privately funded programs that actually make a difference in people’s lives, and it allows ineffective programs to fade away. It encourages people to get back up on their feet and provide for themselves rather than linger in dependency and want. This in turn allows more people, who experienced the love of someone else’s individual charity, to turn around and help others in the same way. There is nothing more moral than this.