Thursday, January 19, 2012

My Uncle, and the Religious Left

My sons tell me they no longer read what he writes to me, and only skim what I write back, but my ongoing political debate with my uncle via email continues. He had mentioned that he never heard of the Religious Left except from me, implication that he doubted it was much of a factor. I refrained from mentioning Jeremiah Wright, focusing instead on his recognising the categories of Episcopalian and Unitarian. I later expanded that to include UCC, Reform Jews, and the hierarchies of most "mainstream" religious groups - the colleges, seminaries, and mission boards of the Methodists, Lutherans, and Presbyterians, for example. (The rank and file, not so much.) I gave some issue examples. Uncle Dave's reply:
All seem to be sub-sets of economics If perceived that way they are easier to classify as Left or Right,
My response - not quite so clean and organised as for a post, but good enough, I suppose. I am leaving out much that could be said, but it's already long, and we have time later.
I think that's generally true, which is why they don't perceive themselves as particularly left-wing and are puzzled, if not offended, when the accusation is made.

They have a set of economic assumptions that come off the left, but they think of them as merely "how things are." They see the goods in a society as belonging to the society in some way - the wealth of America is often described in some aggregate form, as if it is a mostly fixed sum that just exists here somehow, and hasn't been distributed fairly. When pressed, they acknowledge that people make money by providing goods or services, and that growth can be real and not merely reshuffling the deck. Then they revert back to the static assumptions the next day, that America "has" all this wealth, and that the rich "have" it and are hoarding it from the rest of us.

It's easy at that point to perceive justice as involving the removing of wealth from hoarders and getting it to equally deserving people who are just unlucky. I would agree that this is 20% of what happens in our economy and we should strive to reduce the percentage. They would see this outline as 80% of the economy, putting all participants under general condemnation and allowing for rather drastic measures to correct it. Hence the focus on "the wealthiest Americans" and trying to gin up support for their ideas by telling us how much power they have and how evil they are. Also a leftist picture of society, to see the few as possessing most of the power, and themselves as the defenders of the masses.

This is a point at which the religious left becomes more distinguishable from the general left. They are milder in tone because they are milder in belief. They are less embedded in the narrative that says the regular folks only have whatever scraps of power they have managed to wrest from the powerful. They believe that somewhat, but not entirely.

I have called this Marxist with only partial accuracy. This framing of the powerful few versus the many just trying to get their due has been used by many political persuasions. It is central to Marxism and important to milder programs of the left, but it has been used by far- right groups as well, and is a form of populism. And note, in some countries it is a pretty accurate picture of society. I think it's insane in terms of ours or any Western society, where power is very diffuse, but it's true in Africa, partly true in the Middle-East. Your Truman example was as good a description as I've read. If I'm the most powerful man in the world why do I have to spend so much time kissing other people's asses? See also, Bush 41 not wanting to eat broccoli but having to recant the statement.

Back to the religious left: They know rich people who are generous, and maybe even intuit the idea that they are more generous. If they have been in congregational ministry at all, they know there are professional mooches who must be contained or they will destroy the group.

Last point: There is also an automatic assumption that if poor people need things, it doesn't much matter how it gets to them. Making the government "be just," inspiring to personal charity, it's not so very different. That's not entirely untrue, but there is an almost complete failure to consider the tradeoffs. People hungry, get them food - I might have preferences how that happens, because of the cultural, psychological, and spiritual tradeoffs, but I don't much mind however it happens, really. Secondly, if there are identifiable injustices in the system that can be fixed, I think it's a good thing for Christians to work on that, so that there is less need to redistribute at all.

The problem comes as you move off the floor level. The farther up the hierarchy of needs one goes in providing for others, the more the tradeoffs become important. Everyone in America who ever worked believes they are entitled to Social Security. It's the law. I can claim it. I can make the government give it to me with a very simple set of proofs and if that goes wrong, I can get a lawyer to make it happen. Yet it's just a charity program, same as standing in line at a soup kitchen. We don't like to think of it that way. I like to think of myself as having earned everything and beholden to none. But I also take that mortgage interest deduction, got my education at the public library (the schools, not so much), and depend on the courts, jails, and the police department to keep me safe every day. I consider that I am pretty much entitled to all those things, and would feel robbed if they were taken away - especially if some people got them and I didn't.

I use those middle-class examples to illustrate why giving government entitlements to the poor is dramatically different than giving them private charity. In some ways the government way is better - it's less humiliating for people, for example. But giving people stuff via statute is just entirely different than giving via acknowledged charity (whether they know the identity of the donor or not.) By statute, it's mine, dammit, it's not really charity, it's what the world owes me. Thoroughgoing socialists, especially of the European varieties, think this entirely proper. It is yours. You're a person, you were born here, you're entitled to the goods of the society.

It doesn't always start that way - people usually have an awareness when it is something new that they are receiving at the hands of others and make a mental bow in that direction. It seldom lasts. Not because people who have needs, temporary or permanent, are of such poor moral character, but because we all have that moral character. What we come to expect, we believe we deserve. Horrible, but true.

Receiving charity gives one a very different picture of what is happening. One's own place in the social contract is much different. You recognise (or at least, people have a better chance of recognising) that you should try to be moderate in your requests; you should give back what you can in whatever currency you still have; if you prosper down the line, you are under special obligation to give to others; you should say thank you and not be difficult. We internalise these social contract obligations to such a degree that it sometimes interferes with people accepting charity freely given. I well understand the arrogance of not wanting to be humiliated by receiving (I suspect the humiliation would be far more in my own head than in the minds of others). It puts you under emotional obligation to others, and those others may not be nice people. They may rub it in in subtle ways. Receiving charity can be expensive.

There's nothing humiliating about taking Social Security though, is there? Unemployment compensation...not such a clear case, but many people seem to feel they "deserve" that as well. I know someone who was quite proud of himself for using unemployment "the right way," by not jumping at the first job offered, but staying on it until he could secure a proper job in his field. I rather shook my head at that.

Well, you can expand that thought out on your own, I imagine - the keeping the public peace, bread-and-circuses aspect of government entitlement versus the social contract (good and bad) of private charity. I'm sure you have examples of folks you knew and know. I will add that I don't think one of the automatic assumptions of our day - that government at least does it more efficiently and gets it done, where private charity failed - is necessarily true. I think it is only partly true, and the question would be whether it is more than half true or less.


Texan99 said...

An argument I often hear is that private charity is too hit-or-miss; only a federal system can ensure that no sparrow shall fall. But this pragmatic approach evaporates in the face of evidence of the harm done to families and individuals, not to mention the national economic prosperity, by welfare programs.

Donna B. said...

I can't personally be charitable beyond what I have to give. This limit does not apply to government 'giving'.

Dubbahdee said...

From the time I have been a boy I have been the recipient of funds from government programs. After my father died when I was 5 years old, I received far more in support from Social Security that believe I will ever put back in.

Lately, in straitened economic circumstances I have had to avail myself of government help for the sake of my family.

I agree that it is hard to remember that this is charity. There is indeed a tendency to lapse into thinking that this is owed to me -- especially when having to go through some humiliating application process, or after having been talked down to by some lower level functionary with a power problem. I occasionally have to slap myself and remember that I would be in a much different place without such help and that is has indeed been charity and nothing else. I find it important to constantly train myself to be grateful.

Dubbahdee said...

I should also add that I have received more help from private and personal sources than from governmnet sources. Thankfulness for this help is easier and more natural.

I have always depended on the kindness of strangers - and the kindness of friends.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

"Train myself to be grateful." Good phrase. It doesn't come as naturally as we might hope.