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This is in response to the recent diary Why I don't do charity. It started as a comment, but it started getting a little bit out of hand lengthwise, so bear with me.

My starting position is this: I see where the author is coming from, and agree with him to an extent on the macro level. I’m certainly in no position to call him a scrooge. However, when applied to the real world, I think his philosophy starts to break down. The good, the bad, and the ugly of charity and the government on the flip.

First, where he’s right

Private charity is, in a systemic sense, much less effective than government policy. - A charity is set up to deal with a problem. Hunger, healthcare for the poor, AIDS education, what have you. Generally, however, they don’t have the perspective to see how all the pieces fit together. A food bank is in no position to help reduce the number of people who can’t afford their own food. A free clinic isn’t thinking about reducing the mercury emissions of the factory ten miles down the road. The government is in a better position to see the big picture and take action at a much higher level – to use a clichéd medical analogy, they’re in a better position to treat root diseases where private charity can only assuage the symptoms.

If the private sector is doing something – even if badly – the government is loath to enter the field, except to subsidize the existing players. Think health insurance. The system is broken. Everyone knows it’s broken. The government could do it for less. But no, that can’t be right! Everyone knows the private sector can do it for less! (using “it” in the Ebay sense: whatever “it” is we’re talking about.) And so the plans on the table are mostly about how to funnel more money to the existing private players in hopes they’ll let some of it trickle down. And even if something used to be public, once it goes private, it tends to stay that way. Think about how many road and rail privatizations you hear about versus how many public buyouts. And even when things do go the other way, it’s a hard fought battle: “Government pensions for the elderly! Madness! That’s the responsibility of families/churches/friends/etc.!”

But then, what I think he’s missing

Government – especially the large-scale government of the type that can really take large-scale problems – is inefficient. - There, I said it. Call me Grover Norquist. But seriously, this isn’t a fault of Government, per se, it’s a fault of large organizations. The bigger you get, the larger management structure you get, the longer it takes for the required paperwork to get from the guy who sees the problem to the guy who can do something about the problem, the more of a Herculean effort it is to get anything done at all. The Government response to Hurricane Katrina was a travesty. It could have been done a lot better. But the best-run government in the world could not have gotten aid there faster than the locals could aid each other.

Government cannot possibly make everyone happy all the time. - Make up your ideal government, populate it with your favorite leaders, and I guarantee it will grossly underemphasize some issue or program you consider to be of key importance. It’s just not going to agree with you on everything. Extrapolate this out to a real government, and you can see where I’m going. The government does not have the time or capital to give everyone a pony. Can it do a lot more than it’s doing now? Of course. But its desires have to be weighed against competing expenditures, financial prudence, and the willingness of the people to pay taxes. At some point, for reasons valid or otherwise, it’s going to say “no”, and lobby all you want, you’re not going to get your way.  

which brings us to

Sometimes the choice isn’t "government versus private", it’s "something versus nothing". - You see a hungry guy. He wants a sandwich. The two options we seem to be debating, outside of kicking him and telling him to get a job, are

  1. Give him a sandwich
  2. Lobby the government for improved poverty assistance

Now, there are perfectly valid arguments for why you should or should not do either of these. But the thing to remember is that while you’re doing your lobbying, even if it’s completely successful in the end, the guy’s still got no sandwich. It may be that private charity is just a band-aid, but if the guy’s bleeding all over the place, a band-aid might be just what he needs while you call an ambulance.

Unlike the original author, I don’t have a coherent philosophy on giving. And I guess that’s the point. You give because you see something that needs to be done, no one’s doing it, and you can. That’s it. As Democrats, we work to make the nation a better place from the top down. As human beings, we do what we can from the bottom up.

Originally posted to ripzaw on Fri Nov 24, 2006 at 11:47 AM PST.


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