Sunday, December 18, 2005

Giving Sacajawea Dollars: Only "A Little Change"

Today at noontime, after church, I stopped across the street at "gay" Denny's for breakfast. On my way out, I was approached by a panhandler asking for "a little change." I rummaged in my pocket and handed him a Sacajawea dollar I'd gotten from a postage machine. He thanked me kindly, and I went on my way brimming with Christian virtue.

During the service that morning, my pastor had exhorted us to contact our representatives to warn them against voting for the budget cuts now proposed. She said they would hurt those least able to bear the burden of the cuts. "I know it's political," she admitted, "but this is a moral issue."

And indeed it is. I'm a good progressive Lutheran and a dutiful liberal, and I agree with the pastor that cutting benefits for the poor, the elderly and the sick -- while big corporations and the rich enjoy huge windfalls -- is immoral. At the same time, as a budding libertarian, I believe that income tax, in and of itself, is immoral, and that most of what is now being done for the poor, the elderly and the sick (not to mention for the rest of us) should be done via the private sector. How on earth do I square these two seemingly-conflicting views?

Both my pastor and the libertarians are right. It is the duty of all faithful Christians to help those most vulnerable in our society. And ultimately, the private sector can do a far better job of this than can the government at any level. Every responsible citizen, regardless of personal religious faith, is actually acting in the best interest of society by helping to provide a safety-net to keep those of us who fall on hard times from slipping through the cracks, so it is also a matter of enlightened self-interest for us to be charitable to others. One day, we just might need that help ourselves.

If the income tax was eliminated (or at the very least, dramatically reduced), we citizens would have more money to use in support of this safety-net. And private charitable organizations would certainly manage the funds better than the government ever could -- resulting in better and more reliable care for those who need it. I am no disciple of Ayn Rand; I understand that a charitable society is a better place for everyone to live, and that, far from being a weakness, real altruism is a sound investment for us all. I also understand that the libertarian agenda -- if it ever goes forward at all -- will only do so incrementally. The purists' horse will never even leave the gate.

Remember, I am a LIBERAL Libertarian -- placing an equal importance on both of those words. I am dedicated to helping Christianity move in a more progressive direction, because I understand that if it keeps going ever Rightward, it will continue to function as a sort of Taliban for zealot moralists who are long on legalism and pitifully short on love. We will simply never have the sort of America in which private charity can function as an effective safety-net, without any help from the public sector, unless the Religious Right is defeated -- or, at the very least, put in its proper place as a minority on the lunatic fringe. This, my friends, is exactly why it is so crucial to the success of the libertarian movement that it be joined by as many liberals as possible. A great many of the former Republicans in the Libertarian Party may not understand this, but for the sake of the cause they hold so dear, it is imperative that they wake up to that fact before it is too late.

But it is equally important that liberals understand what a disaster tax-funded "charity" really is. If we truly care about the plight of those most vulnerable, then why in the hell are we content to entrust their well-being to a safety-net so shoddily-crafted and shot-full of gaping holes? I would not wish upon my worst enemy the sort of crap the poor, elderly and ailing are forced to endure at the hands of the State.

Progressive preacher-activist Jim Wallis claims that private charity alone is not sufficient to provide adequate care for those who need it. If he means private charity in the world we now live in, I must wholeheartedly agree with him. But he seems incapable of envisioning a world in which people are free to keep what they have earned, and to use it as they best see fit. Have he and his fellow liberals so totally lost faith in humanity that they honestly believe an army of petty bureaucrats, led by "generals" who care only about their own, personal aggrandizement and enrichment, are doing better? I deeply admire Rev. Wallis as a prophetic voice in the Christian community -- one of the few genuinely godly voices we hear these days -- but I wish that he could see the bigger picture.

Somebody explain to me, please, why it's better to tax the knickers off of those who are barely able to make it, just so we can turn around and "give" a portion (and, considering what the State skims off the top for other things, a significantly diminished portion) back to them in social welfare programs? Just how is it that they're supposedly better off getting back a tiny fraction of what's been confiscated from them than they would have been had they simply been able to keep it all? To tax lower-income people at all, while mega-corporations and millionaires get break after break, is nothing short of criminal. To paraphrase my pastor, it truly IS a moral issue.

Of course a lot of libertarians are not only irreligious but anti-religious. They make the case that being forced to pay taxes to fund social welfare programs is a violation of their religious freedom, because it forces them to give to charity. Although such an argument makes me want to hold my nose, I must agree that they are right. If we don't want Pat Robertson and James Dobson's minions battering down our bedroom doors and carrying us off to prison because they don't like our choice of bed-partners, or keeping rape-victims from being able to obtain abortions, then we certainly must concede that "freedom of religion" means vastly different things to different people. It is inconsistent and illogical to argue that as long as it is the agenda of the Religious LEFT that is being pushed upon the public, instead of that of the Religious Right, then it is okay to violate the non-establishment clause of our Constitution.

Were the argument to be presented logically and thoughtfully, I believe that even a great many of those who do not believe in "charity" of ANY sort could be made to understand why some sort of an effective safety-net would make this a better country for all of us to live in. Enlightened self-interest can sometimes be as powerful a motivator as can any theological imperative or sentimental tug at our heartstrings. Privately-funded charities also must compete with one another for funds, meaning that only those that stay honest and are able to account for having used donations wisely will be able to survive and prosper. The State is accountable to nobody -- and at all levels of government, this is becoming increasingly clear.

Perhaps best of all, entrusting the general welfare to the private sector would save it from being the political football it has been for so long. Every group now held hostage by "special political interests," whether the poor, the elderly, racial minorities, gays and lesbians, or whoever else, is now at the mercy of cutthroat political careerists and pundits who care about nothing but riches and fame. Political correctness -- both Left AND Right -- plays coy and crafty little games with our most basic human rights. And those (on either side of the political spectrum) who claim they are advocating our interests know that the real solutions to the problems that beset us, if they were ever to be realized, would kill the Goose that lays their Golden Eggs.

Will that panhandler even be able to use my Sacajawea dollar? There aren't very many of them in circulation, and not every merchant will accept them. Exactly what sort of "charity" was I exercising, really, in handing him such a dubious trinket? But of course, I got it from the change-slot of a stamp machine at the post office. It came from the government that cares so much for us all that it uses them to make change for its postal patrons. When they speak of "all the compassion of the Post Office," I guess that's about what they mean.

We can't trust the government to care about us. And the best that we can ever hope for, in our puny and desperate attempts to "reform" it, is only "a little change."

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