The Corner

Re: Charity & Government

David – Thanks for the clarification re: Berg. Though, it makes total sense to me. Berg’s argument, once you wade through all the green-eye-shade stuff, is clichéd radical-leftist twaddle. There has always been a strong line of argument on the left that volunteerism, charity, philanthropy, and other cogs of civil society are atavistic and counterproductive. According to some on the Left, the Burkean platoons are drug dealers, peddling opiates to the masses, and, hence, keeping them from properly understanding their interests.

After all, if something is worth doing, why shouldn’t the governmet do it? It reminds me of one of the first books I ever reviewed: Generations at the Crossroads (I reviewed it for the dearly departed Public Interest). It was about campus activism and the usual generational b.s. (Help Us Gen X, You’re Our Only Hope!). Paul Loeb, the author, had a strange view of volunteer programs. The problem with community and religious charitable groups wasn’t that they do good things, according to Loeb. Indeed, what was best about them was that such programs — when run right — politicize young people. What’s bad about volunteer programs, however, is that they:

take the heat off of corporate and governmental leaders who continue to slash human resources while America’s problems steadily bleed. They can lead service volunteers directly away from asking how America’s root social choices continue to betray the very communities they work to serve.

As I put it in the review: “In other words, running a midnight basketball program is fine just so long as it doesn’t keep the movement from lobbying the federal government to run one.”

This points to what always bothered me about Barack Obama’s experience as a “community organizer.” Lots of liberal defenders of Obama were stunned that conservatives would make fun of community organizing. Remember all that nonsense about how Jesus was a community organizer and Pontius Pilot was a governor? What hypocrites, they cried, you talk about civil society, localism, and charity and here’s a guy who worked as a community organizer and you mock it!?

The problem is that there are many rooms in the mansion of community organizing. Obama, trained in the Alinsky method, had little use for the Burkean little-platoon school of civil society. His brand of community organizing was all about organizing to more effectively petition the government for more help. Here’s how Byron York put it in his excellent piece on Obama’s Chicago days:

Perhaps the simplest way to describe community organizing is to say it is the practice of identifying a specific aggrieved population, say unemployed steelworkers, or itinerant fruit-pickers, or residents of a particularly bad neighborhood, and agitating them until they become so upset about their condition that they take collective action to put pressure on local, state, or federal officials to fix the problem, often by giving the affected group money. Organizers like to call that “direct action.”

In other words, community organizing isn’t about organizing the community to build a barn, it’s about organizing people to whine so loudly about the lack of federally-provided barns that the government comes in and does it for them.

While it’s hardly news to anyone around here, the reality is that the federal government isn’t very good at replacing charities. Bureaucrats can neither shame nor inspire people, for starters. Bureaucracies are about the paperwork, not the people. And it is in their interest to have as many people as possible dependent on them. That’s why I was always skeptical about the faith-based initiative stuff. Faith-based organizations’ comparative advantage is that they can teach people to fish. Bureaucrats’ comparative advantage is they have access to a government warehouse of surplus freeze-dried fish they can dole out.

Helping the “armies of compassion” — as Bush liked to say — is fine, so long as the armies of compassion don’t become the bonus army of rent-seekers. I remember hearing Mitch Snyder say (when he spoke at my college) that if the feds dropped a briefcase with a million dollars in it on the doorstep of his homeless shelter, he wouldn’t take it because the costs of federal aid outweigh the benefits.

But Snyder was hardly a majority voice. Fortunately, I don’t think Berg is a voice of the majority on the Left, either. Still, people like Berg make the entirely human but very typical liberal mistake of thinking that what you do is all important and that how you do it is irrelevant. The truth, however, to borrow from Marshall McLuhan, is that when it comes to charitable work, the medium is often the message.


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