By Jay Hansen
Some time ago I walked in near the tail end of a political discussion and only heard someone’s closing remarks, which were “I learned a long time ago that government shouldn’t be in the business of charity.”
The man who said it is someone I know to be conservative, and more often than not libertarian. That said, his words reminded me of an old quote from a video I saw a year or two ago. I forget who was speaking exactly, but he was a college professor criticizing the Obama administration and current state of the government over all. I remember him saying about America today, “justice has been reduced to charity.”
I may have forgotten who the speaker was, where I saw the video, or anything else he said in it, but those words stuck with me over a year later. Justice has been reduced to charity. What, exactly, does that mean?
The best, recent story that exemplifies this concept was addressed by Paul Krugman in his piece “Hunger Games, U.S.A.” in the New York Times. In case you haven’t heard, House Republicans basically decided to eliminate food stamps, and not in a rhetorical, faux-political threatening style as they’ve always done; the actually did it. The House passed their version of the farm bill last week – a bill that has been introduced and passed for decades in the same way to provide subsidies for farmers and fund food stamps. Nowadays, the funding for “farmers” goes almost exclusively to massive corporate agricultural companies. You know how it is; America has to pay agricultural companies to do agriculture otherwise they won’t do agriculture, according to right-wingers, even though all their profits are dependent upon doing agriculture. It’s the same argument Republicans make that oil companies need subsidies to drill for oil otherwise they won’t drill for oil; it makes no sense and is anti-capitalistic. This is exactly why House Republicans decided to just say “fuck it” and make all the spending in the bill go to subsidizing big agricultural companies instead of feeding the hungry in America through SNAP benefits (food stamps).
Republicans have always defended their stance against food stamps and other welfare programs by saying the government can’t force people to be charitable, and by collecting our taxes and spending them on aid to the poor (primarily food stamps, in this instance) it is doing just that. Is this really “charity” though, that the government spends money providing aid and relief to those that have fallen on hard times, or is it justice?
Associate Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes is famous for once having said “taxes are what we pay for civilized society,” and that’s the truth. It is with taxes a government, any government, can function (even if just in theory here, people). So now we’re faced with another phrase to define; civilized society, but this phrase, I feel, is easier. To put it simply, in a civilized society, people care about one another. People care, at least to some degree, about all other people in a society with them and not just themselves and their family. A civilized society does not allow people to die preventable deaths. A civilized society does not allow the innocent to suffer unnecessarily, be the pain physical or mental. A civilized society treats everyone fairly by giving them what they need for equality of opportunity, but not equality of results. It is this distinction, I feel, that conservatives often overlook when distinguishing fairness and equality either because they’ve been manipulated by propaganda, or because they are the ones making said propaganda.
Here’s a simpler explanation of fairness, and how it differs from “equality.”
In this image, the “liberal” view of equality is actually fairness. People are given what they need for equal opportunity (to watch the ball game, in this analogy). The “conservative” view of equality is just that – equal. All people are given the exact same resources regardless of what they may need to have an equal opportunity for success in life. On top of that, all too often the actual amount of aid Republicans “give out equally” is none.
Unfortunately, sometimes it’s even worse than all that. In recent years, Republicans seem to have forgotten that they have to at least pretend like they care about the poor and needy. The House-passed farm bill again serves as an example of both these points. Remember, they completely eliminated all funding to food stamps and gave even more money to the wealthy (i.e. agricultural corporations and those running them). So really, sticking with the above analogy, Republicans had three boxes to give out to the three people of different heights, and chose to give all three to the tallest guy. He clearly doesn’t need them, but with three boxes he can see the game even better than he could with two, or one, or none, and could maybe even climb the fence and actually get into the stadium while the other two can’t even see it. Apparently, this is the new concept of how things should work to conservatives. As Krugman wrote, they may not believe the government can take people’s money and force them to be “charitable” by giving to the poor, but they can sure as hell take your money and force you to give it to the rich without so much as batting of their hypocritical eyelash.
We cannot live in a society that is dependent upon the benevolence of the wealthy, powerful, comfortable, and ultimately complacent. This is what the man in the video meant by charity when he said “justice has been reduced to charity.” If there’s no obligation that a small portion of society’s money be spent stopping preventable death and unnecessary suffering then it won’t happen. It’s just not in our nature as individual human beings to simply give and give without mandate or personal gain; that much was proven by the massive failure of communism. If we’re not preventing such death and suffering, then we are not a civilized society and there is no justice. If we are not a civilized society, a civilized race, a civilized species, then what are we doing here at all?
Justice has been reduced to charity.
We create an obligation, a mandate, that the wealthy, and everyone for that matter, care about preventing unnecessary suffering at least to a small degree through taxation and government, and thus, we create justice. Through these social constructs, and programs like Social Security, Medicare, food stamps, and many more, we can make great strides at preventing unnecessary hardships and pain. This is what the man in the video meant by justice – giving people what they need to prevent unnecessary suffering and death as to ensure they have equality of opportunity, but not necessarily equality of results. The results, as individuals, would be up to them and how hard they’re willing to work.
In other words, justice is fairness. Without justice and fairness, we are not a civilized society, and are really nothing more than animals living, dying, and killing by the laws of nature, even if it’s all been “prettied up” by big buildings, fancy suits, and “captains of industry” hero worship of the wealthy. This is the same wealthy whose benevolence we are dependent upon because they are the venerable “job creators.” Even insinuating that they should pay a penny more in taxes is tantamount to blasphemy, because if we do anything of the sort that even slightly displeases or inconveniences them, they won’t “create jobs” any more.
(Because, you know, they’re so busy making jobs right now with their record-breaking profits).
So, to address the initial quote that launched a thousand thoughts to form this article, you could say that it’s not the government’s job to do charity, nor does it do it well. What the government should be in the department of doing, though, is justice and fairness. I would hope that the differences in charity and justice, not to mention equality and fairness, have become abundantly clear by this point.
Generally, somewhere in my above pontifications conservatives will object with angry cries of socialism, that we’re giving to the undeserving and lazy, and that we’re fostering a “nanny state” and perpetuating an epidemic of “welfare queens” that have overrun the country. Buried in their highly political and polarizing rhetoric is a small kernel of truth; there are a very small minority of people who abuse welfare, social safety nets, and systems created to serve justice and fairness to those who actually need it. Never forget, though, that the same is true for the upper echelons of society as well. There upper percentages of income earners in America are ripe with corruption and abuse of the system as well. Off-shore tax havens, corporate tax loopholes, repeated tax cuts, endless subsidies for the most profitable companies in the world, bribing politicians to pass laws and deregulate in their favor, and much more. Heck, you really needn’t look any further than the farm bill I’ve now brought up three times now.
The difference, of course, if that when a member of the lower classes or a dreaded “welfare queen” abuses the system in this way, he or she gets enough money from the government to afford a single meal. When a member of the upper class abuses the system, he or she gets enough money to purchase their third house, second yacht, and fourth member of Congress.
The wealthy “leach” far greater amounts of money from the system than the poor through truly inappropriate abuses of it. More importantly though, I’d rather my tax dollars unintentionally assist someone undeserving in finding a second meal on any given day, provide them the opportunity to go to a doctor when they’re sick, or generally achieving a slightly higher level of squalor and impoverishment, than I would my tax dollars unintentionally go to an undeserving multi-millionaire under some ridiculous premise of “job creation” so that he or she can buy another politician to further rig the game in his or her favor at the cost of hurting the poor, and in some cases almost literally taking food out of their mouths.
But I guess that’s what makes me a liberal.