Wednesday, August 24, 2005

The Selfishness Paradox

Do we become less selfish if we agree to pay lots of taxes toward government-run social programs? It’s an argument I often hear from my European friends when they talk about the flaw of living in the U.S. Since there isn’t a government monopoly in taking care of the sick, the destitute, and the helpless as there are in most Western European states, it is interpreted by most people that the political will of Americans is less influenced by a sense of solidarity and charity. It often surprises many Europeans that Americans contribute the most per capita to private charities, and even more among “red” (republican-leaning) states than in “blue” states. Church-going seems to be a big influence in how much people donate, and churches are also seen as legitimate organizations that can address the needs of the downtrodden more efficiently than a state agency. Although much the concern about faith-based programs receiving federal dollars a few years back was legitimate, especially on the issue of the separation between Church and State, I suspect that some critics were fearful of the success of private organizations compared to wasteful public agencies.

John Stossel, possibly the only libertarian in broadcast media today, writes about the difficulty in establishing non-profit charitable organizations in America. He points to the endless tangle of bureaucracy and regulations that require enterprising do-gooders to seek permits and enlist licensed professionals before ever helping the first soul:

Delancey Street has been hugely successful. Thirteen thousand people have been through its programs. The ex-addicts now run a dozen businesses, including a restaurant and a moving company.
But Mimi Silbert, who started Delancey Street, says it almost didn't happen, because government kept getting in the way. "We have had to fight every bureaucracy that exists." Silbert doesn't employ certified teachers and drug counselors, so welfare workers tried to smother her with red tape. "If Jesus Christ walked in today and wanted to start Christianity, he wouldn't be able to do it because they say to him, 'You need two psychiatrists, you need one social worker, somebody has to sign the things . . . "

Stossel then briefly summarizes how the government assumed greater responsibilities for social welfare. He reminds us of mutual aid societies, like the Knights of Columbus or the Lions Club, who sought to help the underprivileged in their own communities. Membership to them was common before the arrival of Roosevelt’s New Deal, and belonging to them cultivated a sense of benevolence among members and an obligation to others. A sense of responsibility in serving others is essential towards the maintaining of communities, since communities are nothing but a chain of direct relationships between people. Government agencies disrupted these bonds and abrogated responsibility.

Now when we walk by a homeless person, we tell ourselves that somehow that person is not using the services made available by the state. Does it ever occur to us that we should ask ourselves what we can do to help that person that would ensure he got the help he needs? I’m sure we do, but we probably think that it’s not worthwhile when you are only one person and you pay lots of money in the form of taxes to help this guy. Then you reason that the state is not doing its job well, since that homeless person wouldn’t be on the sidewalk in the first place. In the end, it’s all kind of futile since we all know if we use state services to help that person, their very lack of accountability will ensure that he will probably end up back on the street. This may be one reason why Americans donate generously to private charities. Somehow we are convinced that they practice accountability better than government agencies. Not only do extensive welfare systems diminish people’s desire to help the downtrodden, but it kind of engenders a feeling of helplessness on how to truly help.

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