When I read the recent op-ed piece in the Connecticut Post entitled, “Generosity, not government, best serves the poor,” I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. I ended up doing the latter, because the author was quite serious in his belief that only individuals have a moral duty to help the poor. Apparently, government does not and any government that attempts to do so is socialist by nature, a belief system contrary to the tenets of Christianity, we are told. Socialism, according to the article, is a political system that picks the pockets of the “haves” in order to benefit the “have nots.”
What’s wrong with this picture? Just about everything. To begin with, the author brands the current political system of our nation as socialist. According to Random House English Dictionary, socialism is “a system of social organization which advocates the vesting of the ownership and control of the means of production, capital and land, etc. in the community as a whole.” Obvious examples of a socialist system include government-owned and -operated utilities, banks, farms and the like.
Capitalism, on the other hand, is a philosophy that advocates the vesting of the means of production, etc. in the hands of individuals, whose actions are governed largely (but not exclusively) by invisible market forces. Most Americans, including myself, support a capitalist, not a socialist, economic system, despite its flaws (which were so palpably evident during the nation’s recent economic meltdown).
The column then accused a previous writer and unnamed U.S. Catholic bishops of “fall(ing) prey to socialism’s false promise … to make life fair” because they committed the unthinkable crime of urging Congressional restraint in the reduction of national programs that have historically helped the poor.
The author justifies his position by asserting that “life isn’t fair and nothing is going to change that.” Excuse me? Nothing is going to change that? That is precisely what Jesus advocated during His radical Sermon on the Mount. If individuals and their elected officials all over the world, acting in their representative capacities, put that famous Sermon into practice, there would no longer be world hunger and homelessness.
I certainly don’t question the author’s faith as a declared Christian. He has every right to practice his faith as he sees fit. However, I believe that he is extremely misguided about what Jesus taught. The writer supports a religion that assists the poor and downtrodden only through individual but not governmental action. In fact, when government collects taxes in order to help the poor, he claims that it is virtually stealing. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Although he restricts his comments to the government’s taxing and spending function, logically it could be extended to any government action that forces people to assist another group. Hence, he must call into question governmental prohibitions against slavery, segregation, discrimination, child abuse and the like, since he would apparently prefer that citizens behave themselves as free individuals, not being forced to be “good” by the government. Alas, I agree with him that, in the ideal world, individuals should not have to be coerced into behaving themselves, but human history proves the contrary.
History has also proven that when government looks the other way and permits individuals to make money at any cost, the brightest and most gifted may well rise to the top, but those at the bottom of the economic ladder will frequently be left behind. That is why government in a capitalistic society such as our own has a duty to keep the playing field as level as possible for everyone, not just the rich and powerful.
Unrestrained and unregulated capitalism at its worst led to the enslavement of the poor, not their liberation. The amazing thing about our modern society is that, even with limited but faulty governmental intervention, the poor continue to get poorer and even the middle class is on the decline for the first time since the end of World War II.
The fact of the matter is that individuals alone cannot alleviate the increasing poverty, hunger and homelessness that plague our nation and the world. While individuals can and should help, it has always been the role of government to assist its citizens to accomplish what individuals cannot do alone. The elimination of poverty is one such governmental responsibility. Yes, it is the obligation of every Christian to support government policies that do so, although the manner and means of doing so may be hotly and fairly debated. Republicans and Democrats can disagree on the manner of doing so, but, pray God, they should never abandon the goal itself.
Government is but an organized group of individuals, with certain powers and responsibilities bestowed upon it by the people. Both governments and individuals are called by God to lead moral lives and to help those who cannot help themselves. Government and individuals need each other. They cannot possibly achieve anything approaching The Kingdom without working together. Now, more than ever, the poor are hoping that they learn to work together. If they do not, it is the poor who will pay the price, as they always do.