Thursday, June 16, 2005

Liberals, Class, and the Tragedy of American Compassion

Thomas Sowell recently did a three-part series of short articles on Liberals and Class. See here for parts 1, 2, and 3.

It seems to me that there is a renewed interest among evangelicals with helping the poor. More often than not, the proposals involved often involve borrowing from the liberal playbook. That makes Sowell--a world-class economist--an important voice to listen to.

Here are some interesting quotes:

"The latest round of statistics emboldens more intellectuals to blame 'society' for the failure of many people at the bottom to rise to the top. Realistically, if nearly a third of people born to families in the bottom quarter of income earners rise into the top half, that is not a bad record.

"If more were doing so in the past, that does not necessarily mean that "society" is holding them down more today. It may easily mean that the welfare state and liberal ideology both make it less necessary today for them to change their own behavior."

"Having imagined a world in which each individual has the same probability of success as anyone else, intellectuals have been shocked and outraged that the real world is nowhere close to that ideal. Vast amounts of time and resources have been devoted to trying to figure out what is stopping this ideal from being realized -- as if there was ever any reason to expect it to be."

"Sometimes it seems as if liberals have a genius for producing an unending stream of ideas that are counterproductive for the poor, whom they claim to be helping."

One of the most frustrating things about being a conservative is that the liberal mindset thinks that conservatism--which stresses equality of opportunity rather than equality of results, personal responsibility vs. blaming "society" first, free markets vs. governmental price controls and involvement with minimum wages--is seen as antithetical to genuine compassion.

Those inclined to think that might want to check out Marvin Olasky's influential volume, The Tragedy of American Compassion, a book I am currently reading. (Olasky coined the phrase "compassionate conservatism," and this book was widely influenced during the welfare reform of the Clinton years.) The book is a social history of the welfare state, and describes how compassion used to be defined much differently by the social Calvinists in the 1800s rather than it is today. Here is the book description and the endorsements for it:

Can a man be content with a piece of bread and some change tossed his way from a passerby?

Today's modern welfare state expects he can. Those who control the money in our society think that giving a dollar at the train station and then appropriating a billion dollars for federal housing can cure the ails of the homeless and the poor.

But the crisis of the modern welfare state is more than a crisis of government. Private charities that dispense aid indiscriminately while ignoring the moral and spiritual needs of the poor are also to blame. Like animals in the zoo at feeding time, the needy are given a plate of food but rarely receive the love and time that only a person can give.

Poverty fighters 100 years ago were more compassionate--in the literal meaning of "suffering with"--than many of us are now. They opened their own homes to deserted women and children. They offered employment to nomadic men who had abandoned hope and human contact. Most significantly, they made moral demands on recipients of aid. They saw family, work, freedom, and faith as central to our being, not as life-style options. No one was allowed to eat and run.

Some kind of honest labor was required of those who needed food or a place to sleep in return. Woodyards next to homeless shelters were as common in the 1890s as liquor stores are in the 1990s. When an able bodied woman sought relief, she was given a seat in the "sewing room" and asked to work on garments given to the helpless poor.

To begin where poverty fighters a century ago began, Marvin Olasky emphasizes seven ideas that recent welfare practice has put aside: affiliation, bonding, categorization, discernment, employment, freedom, and most importantly, belief in God. In the end, not much will be accomplished without a spiritual revival that transforms the everyday advice we give and receive, and the way we lead our lives.

It's time we realized that there is only so much that public policy can do. That only a richness of spirit can battle a poverty of soul. The century-old question--does any given scheme of help... make great demands on men to give themselves to their brethren?--is still the right one to ask. Most of our 20th-century schemes have failed. It's time to learn from the warm hearts and hard heads of the 19th-century.

"We are indebted to Olasky for bringing past lessons of history to bear on a present cultural crisis. Another great work by one of today's foremost thinkers." --Charles W. Colson, Chairman, Prison Fellowship

"A comprehensive, well documented, and much needed study of the decline of true compassion that provides fresh analysis and provocative insight into the causes and cures of this American tragedy. Must reading for people who want to understand and help correct the plight of hurting people." --Dr. Anthony T. Evans, President, The Urban Alternative

"Those who read and understand Olasky's work will be better prepared to move creatively in affirming the dignity of the poor, and in affirming work as a virtue." --John Perkins, Publisher, Urban Family magazine

"Marvin Olasky's perceptive book shows how we, as individuals and in community with one another, can best demonstrate the genuine compassion that the poor need most of all." --Doug Bandow, Senior Fellow, Cato Institute

"Finally someone has put the horse and the cart in the right order. Marvin Olasky neither shuns compassion nor assistance for the poor, but rather gives the historical definition of each and assigns them their proper priority. Not only can this book benefit the truly needy, it can benefit the country. Not a bad accomplishment for one book." --Cal Thomas, Los Angeles Times Syndicate