There’s considerable debate these days about the role of government. This is nothing new, really; Ronald Reagan famously declared that “government is not the solution to our problems, government is the problem,” and the 1932 presidential election was essentially a referendum on whether or not the federal government should intervene in the Great Depression. However the rise of the Tea Party in the United States has now brought the old questions back to the fore, and they are always worth discussing — in particular the use of government funds to feed the poor.
First, let me say that I am not automatically a huge fan of government.
Governments, after all, are capable of perpetrating enormous crimes. The greatest murderers on record — Josef Stalin and Mao Zedong — were not exactly libertarians. Without going to such extremes, however, every government perpetrates small crimes against its citizens: “the insolence of office, the law’s delay,” Hamlet laments in his famous speech, and anyone who has dealt with the DMV or dealt with legal proceedings knows what he meant. And, perhaps nearest to the Tea Party’s heart, governments almost universally insist on that redistribution of wealth called taxation. As Terry Pratchett put it, if you steal a small amount of money, you’re a thief; steal millions and you’re probably a government. [Paraphrased from “Going Postal,” pg. 10]
My own government, which theoretically represents me and works for me, is of course no exception. It does not tax on the scale of Sweden or Denmark, but its demands have gone up over its history. Its bureaucracies are not riddled with the corruption that plague many other lands, but they have multiplied and grown, and generally harassed and annoyed the very people they were created to help. And while its most grievous crimes are not on the scale of Stalin’s, the US government does begin wars, the worst of all possible crimes save one, and it has a history with that one worst crime as well. Genocide, as a term, had not yet been invented during the Indian Wars, but it was definitely official government policy toward the First Nations.
Particularly galling are the US government’s hypocrisies. “Dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” it may be, but it has also tolerated and even defended slavery, segregation, and discrimination by gender, sexuality, and class. Its citizens may be guaranteed the right to freedom of speech, but the government has notably silenced dissent by labeling it “sedition” on numerous occasions, and expanded “free speech” to mean spending money, leading us to the conclusion that all of us are free to speak, but some are freer than others. The American press is theoretically also unfettered, but the government has placed considerable restrictions on the media, especially during wartime, and also has stood idly by — or even abetted the process — as the press has passed into the hands of a few conglomerates.
So: I am not automatically a fan of government.
Now, some services that some governments can provide are almost indisputably good. The Seattle area, thanks to the publicly-funded Medic One paramedic system, is one of the best in the country and the world for emergency response; while our roads and highways are nowhere near such quality, I can’t imagine how much worse our traffic would be without public funding. Only the most virulent libertarians are going to assert that fire departments, road construction, and sanitation should be privatized.
All of the above considered, therefore, you might peg me as mostly libertarian, or perhaps a “localtarian,” a supporter of some practical limited civic government but nowhere near so enthusiastic beyond the regional level. This, however, does not factor in the moral code that I strive to live by.
Whether or not I am a Christian is still debatable, but I am still deeply influenced by Jesus of Nazareth, particularly when it comes to treating the poor. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is essentially the universal ethical code, found in one form or another in almost all religions and embraced by agnostics and atheists as well. But the Nazarene was particularly articulate on who the “others” are, and what “doing unto them” looks like. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus spelled out explicitly that we are all neighbors to each other; even our enemies must be our neighbors. Therefore all people are “others.” And Jesus was extremely clear on what exactly it is that we must “do” unto these neighbors: we must love them. In other passages, he showed that the poor are our neighbors too, the most needy and therefore the most in need of love.
Billions of people live on less than a dollar a day. Billions live under the poverty line. Even here in the still-prosperous-by-comparison United States, 14.3% of Americans were living below the official poverty line in 2009. American children are disproportionally poor — 25% of the population, but 35% of the impoverished population [National Poverty Center, 4/6/2011]. I could walk down the block and talk to the homeless men panhandling outside my local grocery store right now.
There are so many people barely getting by, lacking adequate food and education, many lacking adequate shelter. Billions are without clean water or even clean air. So many people. Therefore I’m faced with a real problem: by my ethical code, and in theory by almost everyone’s, these people have to be fed. How can it be done?
Well, here’s the thing: in the US today, there are roughly 44 million people on food stamps right now (or, in the modern parlance, EBT). That’s about one in every seven Americans. [Food Research and Action Center, 4/6/2011] And if you’re feeding or helping to feed over forty million people who can’t afford to pay you back, you’re either Jesus Christ or a government.
In all these debates currently raging about the role of government, and how much money the government should spend, I have a simple question to ask the Tea Partiers, the Republicans, the libertarians: if the government has no business feeding these people, whose job is it?
As I have understood their arguments (and please correct me if I am wrong), the usual line is that poor people are poor because they are A) lazy, B) stupid, C) sinful, or D) any or all of the above. They seem to say that giving money to poor people, regardless of who’s giving the money, increases their laziness and/or sinfulness. In other words, their poverty is their own fault. They’ve made their bed and they need to lie in it.
The statistic I cited above, regarding children, gives the lie to that argument all by itself — how can they blame and starve a two-year-old just for having poor parents? But far more importantly, Jesus (and Moses, Amos, Francis of Assisi, Mother Theresa, Mohandas Gandhi, the Buddha, and many, many more) never once qualified his instruction to be generous to the poor. He never once said, “Love your neighbor if they deserve it.” He never once said, “Give all you have to the poor if they’ve met all the eligibility criteria.”
I’ve gotten the impression that many Republicans and Tea Partiers hold the man from Galilee in enormous respect. If that’s so, in order to maintain their own principles, won’t they need to come up with a method of feeding all these poor people? Again, if you’re going to feed billions of people who can’t afford to pay you in the process, you’re either the Messiah yourself, or you have the collected wealth of a country, the results of taxation: a government’s resources.
Without a Messiah handy, I would be enormously pleased to find an alternative.
Government would do a lousy job. In fact it always has — just ask the tribes on the reservations. It would be arrogant and complicated and tangled (and the food itself probably wouldn’t taste too good). But even doing a lousy job, the government might get the job done. I know of nothing else short of Heaven on Earth that even has that chance. And either Jesus of Nazareth was flat wrong, or the poor must be fed.
So who will do it?