Re: The Folly Of “Free” Compassion

I’m all about putting principles into action, so I especially appreciate Kyle’s thoughts on what it might look like if, one day, we were to relegate the oxymoronic policy of forced compassion to the ash heap.  I completely agree that we cannot wait around until the state abandons this mindset.

If I am right about compassion being a love response (and I am), I think it follows that people (both recipients and providers) will find it an extraordinarily attractive alternative to the ersatz version the state has been championing for so many years.  There’s something moving about finding out someone actually cares about you; and cares enough to help.

The church should be leading the charge in restoring compassion to its proper place.  But it has been letting the state eat its lunch.  No . . . that doesn’t quite capture it.  A large segment of the church has prepared the lunch, personally walked it to the state’s offices, set the table, and invited the government to feast.  This is tragic.  Not just in the sense that it ought to be otherwise.  More in the sense that it makes one want to weep in frustration, or anger, or just heart-emptying sadness.  Here’s why.

It is the church’s glory to care for the poor and the widow and the helpless.  It’s not a burden.  It’s not a chore.  And it’s not something that can be satisfied by posting the 3-figure balance of the “deacon’s fund” on the back page of the church bulletin.

Jesus didn’t leave the church many mandates.  It’s not like the New Testament is an ancient version of the Code of Federal Regulations, stuffed from cover to back with endless and mind-numbing directives on what he expects of us.

It’s so simple.  Love God.  Love your neighbors.  How simple is that?  Simple enough that when a lawyer thought to excuse himself from its simplicity by quibbling over the second command, Jesus slapped him down (lovingly, to be sure) with the Good Samaritan.

Being the Good Samaritan should be the church’s central organizing principle, not a peripheral program.  We say we want to bear witness to God’s unmerited favor and teach people of his love.  But then we outsource to the state (the state, of all things) the best, highest, and sweetest way to bring his love to others.

There are those who accuse me of favoring too much the life of the mind.  There’s some truth to that – I get a thrill out of searching for and discovering principles that I can build into arguments, arguments I can arrange into structures, and structures that can order my affairs.  But you can’t live life only in your mind.  And so, sometimes, sometimes, I ache to see God’s love.  To see it, in the light of day with my waking eyes, not just know of it.  If I, already a Christian, long for this, how much more those who do not know of that love at all?

Compassion is what love looks like – gathering a fallen stranger into your arms and dressing his wounds while the dirt of the road soils your clothes.  Not metaphorically – really.  Compassion meets physical needs, and in meeting those physical needs reaches deep into that void that unknowingly craves the Creator’s love.

The church cheats the world to the extent its face, its heart, its pulse, becomes something other than compassion.  And when it allows (or worse, encourages) the state to steal its glory, it bears witness that it has forgotten what it is.  Small wonder so many people think the church frivolous and irrelevant.

We talk and sing of God’s love with no end.  Our fellow Americans, however, are waiting to see it.  So, naturally, we send them to the local welfare office to find it.  What disgrace, what shame.

The Folly Of Forced “Compassion”

So . . . federal and state governments have spent over 1 trillion of your dollars on means-tested welfare programs in the past year.  That number does not include Social Security or Medicare, just so you know.  You might wonder what such a jaw-dropping amount of money might buy.  I thought you might, because I was wondering too.

Well, apparently, it doesn’t buy much at all.  According to the Congressional Research Service, $1 trillion is enough to eliminate poverty in the entire United States.  But that doesn’t even begin to capture the relationship between poverty and welfare spending.  That $1 trillion is enough to wipe out poverty in our country five times over (thanks, Heritage Foundation).  A little like using a fire-hose to douse a match, don’t you think?

Yet still the match burns.  The poverty rate in America sits at about 15% today.  And that percentage has been on the rise even as the amount we spend on poverty elimination has increased.  Hmm.  Shouldn’t there be an inverse relationship between poverty and anti-poverty spending?

If people were simply bank accounts whose balances needed replenishing, the answer would be “yes.”  They’re not, of course.  A 15% poverty rate translates to about 46.2 million people who are officially poor.  Which means there are approximately 46.2 million reasons for the nation’s poverty rate.  Poverty is not a group problem, it is an individual problem.  Any serious treatment of the issue needs to account for this.

Unfortunately, the government’s approach to poverty has been to treat it as a one-dimensional group phenomenon.  People really are little more than overdrawn bank accounts.  I’m not faulting the good intentions of our legislatures or the bureaucrats who carry out their policies.  I am, however, noting that government is a blunt instrument that is institutionally incapable of the personalized treatment the intractable problem of poverty requires.

More to the point, I’m suggesting that the fact of government involvement is partly responsible for the problem’s intractability.  In trying to translate Americans’ admirable compassion into legislative programs, we didn’t account for the human dimension.  We forgot that compassion and compulsion are mutually exclusive.  It turns out, in fact, that compulsion kills compassion.  What we meant for good actually bred envy, resentment, and pride.  How could a noble sentiment like compassion turn into such a poisonous brew?

If we look at the human dimension of welfare programs, I think we’ll find the answer.  Let’s start with a simplified mental diagram of how welfare programs work.  Each program consists of a relationship between these three groups:  (1) The state, (2) the program recipients, and (3) the people from whom the resources come to fund the program – otherwise known as taxpayers.  Think of it as a triangle with the state at the apex, the recipient on the lower left, and the taxpayer on the lower right.

Here’s a basic lifecycle of the typical welfare program.  Legislators identify some measure of poverty in need of amelioration, and under the banner of compassion they adopt a new welfare program.  The state then compels the taxpayers to fund the new program.  The state takes its cut of the compelled revenue, and passes along what’s left to the undifferentiated group who qualify for the program.

Now let’s see how that transaction affects each of the participants.  We’ll begin with the beneficiaries.  Welfare recipients have a “right” to their benefits.  If they meet statutory standards, benefits follow automatically.  Recipients can even sue for them if improperly denied.  No surprise, then, that a large segment of welfare recipients expect to be supported by the government as a matter of right.  And if they are entitled to support, it follows that it ought to be enough to satisfy their needs.  However much they receive, though, it’s never enough because the “rich” always have so much more and, doggone it, the disparity between me and thee just shouldn’t be that great.  This is how we breed envy:  Teach people they have a right to what belongs to others.  So the beneficiaries descend to reliance on the state, and envy of their fellow man.

The transaction harms the providers too.  People work hard for their income, and the vast majority must carefully budget their resources, scrimp for the essentials, do without some things so they can afford others with a higher priority.  Notwithstanding Americans’ legendary generosity, they do not appreciate being compelled to give up their hard-won income to someone else.  Especially when that someone is telling them that they have too much as it is, and that they must be made to pay their “fair share,” or that we should “spread their wealth around.”  This is how we breed resentment:  Take from those who create and give it to people who don’t.  Consequently, the providers resent both the state and their fellow man.

And finally there is the state.  Politicians are lauded or lambasted in large part based on their “compassion.”  The compassion, of course, is measured by how much money they transfer from one group to another.  It’s strange, when you think about it, how they congratulate themselves for giving something that was not theirs to people to whom it does not belong.  But that is how we breed pride.  Politicians begin to believe they are morally superior to the providers, and paternalistically superior to the beneficiaries.

This is the folly of forced “compassion.”  Compassion cannot coexist with compulsion; it is a love response, and love cannot be compelled.  The Good Book has something to say about this:  “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.  It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.  Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.  It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”  I Cor. 13:4-7.  Is there anything there compatible with compelled wealth transfers?  I didn’t think so either.

If God is love, and compassion a loving response, maybe God belongs at the apex of the triangle instead of the state – if we’re looking to be compassionate, of course.  Sitting right behind the commandment to love God with all your heart there is this:  “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  Mark 12:31.  What if we did?

To start with, a welfare recipient would no longer be a welfare recipient.  He would be an individual and the object of someone’s love.  He would receive gifts, not entitlements.  People respond to those differently.  Understanding that someone has willingly sacrificed some of his hard-won income, with no obligation to do so, he will respond with gratitude, not envy.  He gives thanks . . . he doesn’t complain he has not received more.  And because he sees that the giver has provided for him not out of overwhelming abundance, but out of limited resources, he will be more likely to do whatever it takes to get out of poverty.

The transformation reaches the giver as well.  Where once there was resentment, there is now . . . what?  The compelled taxpayer is now the voluntary giver.  He recognizes his shared humanity with the one in need and, grateful for his own resources, reaches out to alleviate his fellow man’s suffering.  Why, that’s compassion that has taken resentment’s place.  This is the real thing, a love response born of self-sacrifice, not a grudging response compelled by others.

There is still the matter of the triangle’s apex.  Denied their pretensions to compassion, politicians would have to find some other basis for self-congratulation.  In their place, God would receive the well-deserved love of his creation – both from the poor, who are grateful He has prospered others enough to help them in their need, and from the givers who get to experience the joy that comes with giving.

There may be other justifications for forcing one person to give what he has created to someone who has not earned it, but please let’s not pretend it’s compassion.  If we really care about our fellow man, we ought at the very least take a hard, critical look at the damage our faux compassion is causing.  What have we bought with that $1 trillion?  Not the end of poverty, certainly.  But we’ve got more envy, resentment, and unwarranted pride than we could ever need.

Epistemology-Slinging At The OK Corral

Greg has chosen epistemology at 20 paces.  So be it.  Now, Greg has steady nerves and keen aim, so this doesn’t bode well for me.  But my Irish heritage has given me a genetic inability to duck a challenge.  All I’m hazarding, however, is public embarrassment, so here goes.

In Greg’s view of things, the cultural elite (no less than the gentleman watching Family Guy with a six-pack standing by) are insensibly marching in circles with too little thought given to where they have been and where they are going.  That is to say, they haven’t given enough attention to the effects of what they do, and so are not intellectually responsible for what follows.

This isn’t a cheap shot at those with whom we may disagree – he finds the same torpor on our side of the debate.  In fact, to his credit, Greg is actually offering ignorance as a defense against my charge that the cultural elite know their favored policies are causing harm:

Both Christian teaching and conservative beliefs about human behavior explain why we shouldn’t expect to find that our opponents are conscious of the destructiveness of their policies.

Greg says we need to, and can, break the cycle of unconscious destructiveness.  To this he adds an important caveat:

But we can’t do that if we live in a false reality where we imagine that our opponents are knowingly accepting the destruction of America as the price they pay for fidelity to their values. That picture strikes me as ludicrous.

That statement is why we are here at the OK Corral.  If it’s true, we have one type of conversation with our opponents (a la Kwai Chang Kaine and Grasshopper).  If it’s not, we have another (mano a mano over the relative importance of competing values).  Before the shootin’ starts, let’s take a look around at the lay of the land.

As we do our survey, we notice two important features of the landscape.  The first is that people are not epistemologically monolithic.  What they know is largely determined by who they are, their level of intelligence, and their motivation to know whatever it is we’re talking about.

Thus, it’s important to identify who’s doing the knowing, and what they are supposed to know.  For example, I wouldn’t expect a typical newsreader to know that the Federal Reserve’s quantitative easing policy increases the money supply without reference to increased economic production, thereby causing the value of savings to erode as inflation increases.  But I would certainly expect Ben Bernanke to know this.

The second feature our survey reveals is that we cannot always accurately predict all the consequences of our policies or ideas.  In some Rube Goldbergian sense, when I buy a bottle of Santa Barbara Pinot Noir, I am engaging inter-connected economic levers that reach across the country without even knowing what they are.  If my preference for that wine over one from Napa Valley causes the other winery to go out of business, this says nothing about whether I intended the other winery to fail.  My preference for Santa Barbara wines is not the proximate cause of the failure.  But it is the proximate cause for one bottle of Santa Barbara Pinot Noir sitting in my kitchen instead of on a store shelf.

So when we charge someone with understanding the destructiveness of a policy or idea, it is important we first do the epistemological match.  The first step is to look for people who are responsible for an idea or policy (or who advocate for it).  This gives us the assurance we are considering only those with a high motivation to know the nature of the idea or policy.  The second step is looking for a short proximal fuse between the policy they advocate and the consequence.  This gives us a rational basis for tagging the people under consideration with knowledge of their policies’ consequences.

That’s what the OK Corral looks like.  Greg’s hand is inching towards his epistemology, and his finger’s starting to twitch.  So it’s time to mix it up.

Greg said we could win over the cultural elite on topics like marriage by (for example) appealing to their concern for the poor, women, and children.  We would be doing a bit of jiu-jitsu – using their solicitude for these groups to demonstrate a need to change their policies.  This strategy only works, however, if the elite would not knowingly favor policies inimical to those groups.

Unfortunately, they do.  Let’s do some epistemological matching.  The media have made themselves the institutional defenders of the poor, women, children, and minorities.  Should they report on the end of the world, so the witticism goes, the headline would trumpet that women and children were hit the hardest.  So they wouldn’t give aid and comfort to something that would harm those groups, would they?

The rise of radical Islam shows that they would.  One of the central characteristics of this extreme theology is its misogyny.  The media, however, has been strangely silent on how destructive this is to women.  They’ve even gone beyond silence – they actually run interference for radical Islam, pleading for our tolerance and understanding of differing cultures.  The rights of women take back seat to a higher value (in their minds) – promoting and defending the multi-culturalism imperative.

We have an epistemological match!  The media is in a position to know about radical Islam, is motivated to know what it does, and there is a nearly instantaneous proximal fuse between the thing they advocate and the destructive effects for women.  Yes, we can safely conclude they know the destructive effects of their advocacy, and they pursue it anyway.  Why?  Because multi-culturalism is more important than its effects on women.

Shall we try another?  It’s an emotional one, but it is especially instructive.  Here we will match the Democratic Party, a major women’s organization, and a single-purpose special interest group to a policy deadly to children. The subject, as you might guess, is abortion.  The Democratic Party favors it, the National Organization of Women is adamantly supportive, and the National Abortion Rights Action League has the single-minded purpose of keeping it legal.

Each of these culturally-elite organizations has invested heavily, both in dollars and intellectual effort, in normalizing the practice of abortion, making it culturally acceptable.  An abortion, of course, involves taking the life of a human being.  And everyone involved in the subject knows it.  Not only is the proximal fuse short between the policy and the destructive consequence, it is simultaneous.  So we may safely charge them with knowingly favoring a policy that has as its primary purpose harming children.  Why?  To preserve sexual libertinism.  Another epistemological match!

We could do this all day long, but I think it makes the point, yes?  Culturally elite institutions, ones with a vested interest in knowing the effects of their preferred policies, will work to the disadvantage of women, children, and the poor when it will advance a more important objective.

They don’t need us to teach them that their policies cause collateral damage.  They already know.  If we are to make a difference, therefore, we have to convince them that the damage is a price too high to pay.  And that project is significantly different from Greg’s mission to simply put the collateral damage on display.

Let’s not step into the OK Corral thinking the cultural elite don’t know what they’re doing.  We’ll get epistemology-whipped.  And there ain’t nothin’ more embarrassing than that.

The Limits Of State Action: Why You’re Not The Boss Of Me

I love these conversations.  Sometimes, in the middle watch of the night, I’m still sifting through them, arranging fragments of thoughts and arguments to see if they are building towards a whole, and then arranging them again.  It’s deeply satisfying, but when the building blocks come from several different people, it is difficult.  Each thought and argument has attached to it content that today we would call “metadata.”  That metadata, if we could see it, would tell us something about where in the grand scheme of things the person proposing the idea believes it belongs.

Trouble is, though, that the metadata is largely invisible – most often we have to intuit it from the substance of the discussion.  And that leads to unnecessary misunderstandings.  When we talk about rights, and morals, and law, and culture, we each have some understanding of how those are all supposed to fit together.  But that doesn’t necessarily come through when we talk about specific issues.

Perhaps we should each take a peek at the others’ cards.  Just a quick one, nothing comprehensive.  But enough to give us a sense of the structure that supports the bits and pieces of our propositions.

I’ll go first, and then by way of example of how it works (for me, at least) I’ll respond to a prior post where my hidden metadata has raised some questions.

I start with a series of jurisdictional propositions (why?  Because I’m a lawyer, that’s why).  In the beginning there was God, so the Bible tells us.  And because everything has to come from somewhere, all authority must come from him by virtue of having existed before all else.  But he did not stay alone – he made us.  And in doing so he spread complexity throughout the world.

But we can tease out some of the complexity by observing how he delegated some of his authority.  Those things he created, he created with a purpose, and authority followed the purpose.  So we have, originally, individual authority.  That is, man’s right to do whatever he wishes so long as it does not contradict the boundaries established by his Author.  Man, however, was not alone; he had, most immediately, a family.  And that family had a purpose:  Mutual love and support, and bringing the next generation into being and maturity.  There simultaneously arose, therefore, familial authority:  A couple’s right and obligation to arrange their responsibilities in a way that will foster love and support for one another, and for their children (should there be any).

The families, of course, were not alone either.  They combined to form societies, in which they inter-related in a variety of complex ways in pursuit of many different purposes.  So, for example, they organized and employed their talents to create and exchange wealth in a way that could not be done alone (economics), coalesced around their faith in their Creator so that they might better serve him and others (the church), formed co-operative undertakings with like-minded individuals (philanthropic and fraternal organizations), and so on.

But that is not all the families did when they came together in society.  They did something else, something that, in its nature, differed profoundly from all the other associations they created.  They institutionalized the use of force.  But before we get there, I must digress briefly on the topic of where the legitimate use of force comes from.

Because we are each created in the image of God, we are each equal (as our Declaration of Independence proclaims).  Not in talents or abilities of course.  But in our essence, that which makes us humans as opposed to animals (for those uncomfortable with theological terms, you can derive these same principles from a close study of nature).  That equality has consequences.  It means no one may set himself up as superior to another, because to do so would deny that equality.  So my neighbor may not legitimately substitute his decisions for mine because that would make me his inferior, not his equal.  Thus, when he comes to take my horse against my will, I may actualize my equality by forcefully preventing his theft.  So too with the protection of my life and the lives of those for whom I am responsible.  And so on with respect to all of those decisions that I may make consistently with my obligations to my family, to God, and my duty to not cause another to become my inferior by substituting my will for his own.  End of digression.

The institutionalization of force is a society’s decision to delegate to a small number of people the authority to act in my stead in the protection of my essential equality.  We call this small group of people the “state.”  Its legitimate scope of activity is defined by the purpose for its creation:  The protection of rights.  It cannot properly go beyond that purpose because the state acts, always, coercively.  And coercion will always do one of two things.  It will maintain fundamental equality between individuals (formal equality, as some political philosophers would put it), or it will subjugate one to another.  Because the latter would work in derogation of its purpose, it is illegitimate, and thus states its limit.

Now, as we start circling back to our conversations, you have a synopsis of the metadata underlying my thoughts.  When I query whether the state ought to act in a particular sphere, or in a particular way, here is the analysis I conduct.  First, I ask whether the purpose of the proposed intervention is to protect a right.  If it is, then I consider what might be the most prudent manner of intervening.  The first question is jurisdictional (may the state act?); the second is discretionary (how ought it to act?).

With that all perfectly clear (that’s tongue-in-cheek, just so you  know), I can now turn to some of the questions raised in a prior post.

Greg wants to talk about public nudity.  I’ll spend only a moment in these uncomfortable waters to minimize the danger of a faux pas.  Specifically he’s worried that my analysis may not account for the state’s need to understand moral concepts.  Responding to my statement that the state’s interest in banning public nudity is in refereeing competing claims to the commons, not in sexuality per se, Greg asks:

“But how is the state to referee these conflicts if it doesn’t know anything about the subject?”

The short answer is that it can’t.  Greg is correct when he says “[l]aw can’t be legitimate if it’s not grounded in a moral consensus.  All law presupposes a moral framework.  You can’t ban public nudity without some implied judgment on the moral status of public nudity.”  But I’ve said nothing against the truth of this proposition.

Here’s what I’ve said.  An activity’s immorality, without more, does not give us authority to legislate against it.  It must satisfy the jurisdictional question: Does our coercive intervention against the immoral activity vindicate a right?

That does not suggest it is beyond the state’s purview to account for the moral dimensions of public nudity.  In fact, it requires it.  Without such an accounting there is no way the state can accurately judge whether that activity violates the rights of others using the commons.  After all, if “flap[ping] your bits around in the town square” (in Greg’s felicitous phrasing) is the moral equivalent of eating a PB&J on a park bench, there is no sense in which we could conclude that someone’s rights had been abridged.  It is only because the state understands the immorality of public “bit flapping” that we can conclude that it interferes with a right.

I identified that right, by way of example only, as preventing the exhibitionists from interfering with the moral formation of my children as we perambulate around the town square.  There could be other reasons for banning public nudity, but to justify the state’s intervention any alternative reason must also satisfy the jurisdictional inquiry.  If it does not, then we are simply legislating morality qua morality, which substitutes our will for that of our neighbor, and denies the equality God created between us.

Perhaps this will provide some measure of clarity to my specific propositions when the metadata goes missing.  One other thing — everyone in future hypotheticals must wear clothes.  If they don’t, I’ll supply the apparel.  Fair warning:  It might involve parachute pants and other 80’s paraphernalia.

Appropriate attire for a Hang Together hypothetical



Ain’t No Functionalism Here

We’ve spent a fair amount of time around these parts on whether marriage is dead, and if so, what is to be done about it.  That discussion has been both instructive and revealing.  One of the things it has revealed is a need to address an unexplored assumption, to wit, how we determine where the state may legitimately intervene in our lives.  I operate on the historical understanding that government has a limited role that is best expressed as the responsibility to protect our rights.  Greg apparently has something more extensive in mind.

Greg says “I think Dan has made a pretty key mistake that needs to be addressed before we carry the broader conversation further.  In social science, the mistake that I have in mind is known as ‘functionalism.’  This is a method for explaining human behavior that was fashionable for a short period but is now generally recognized as a fallacy.”  I agree.  Well, not that I’ve made that mistake, but that we need to discuss this before the conversation can broaden.

I find myself frequently saying that I agree with Greg.  That shouldn’t be surprising – Greg is frighteningly intelligent, and before he says anything, he puts a huge amount of thought into it.  So when he takes me to task for engaging in functionalism, I know that, lurking beneath the surface of that short post, there is a wealth of research and rumination.  And while I agree with everything he says about that model, I plead “not guilty” to the charge of using it.  Here’s why.

Greg accurately describes functionalism’s (functional?) limitation as its inability to describe why people do what they do.  He says “[f]unctionalism assumes that the true meaning of human behavior is unrelated to the subjective experience of the one engaging in the behavior.”  He explains, by way of example, that functionalism cannot adequately describe a rain dance because observing participants’ physical behavior says nothing about the subjective reasons for engaging in that activity.  And he concludes that “[f]unctionalism fails because it cannot account for the behavior it describes.  The tribe would not do the rain dance if they didn’t believe it made rain.”

All that is true, and would be relevant if I had said you could reverse engineer the true and complete meaning of marriage by looking only at the third facet of marriage.  But I didn’t.  In fact, I distinctly remember saying there are three facets – the interpersonal, the relationship between the couple and God, and the relationship between the couple and the state.  The first two facets cover the “why” and the metaphysics.  And while I’ve described the third in functional terms, I’ve never suggested that it accounts for the totality of the institution of marriage.

What I have done is propose that when we banished the third facet, we killed the institution of marriage in its traditional form and replaced it with something no longer tethered to legally cognizable rights and responsibilities.  That, however, does not imply the third facet is a sufficient basis for understanding traditional marriage, only that it is a necessary one.  This is no more functionalistic than noting that without lungs you’re, well, dead.  We are not completely defined by our lungs, yet we’re nowhere without them.

So the reason I have not been using a functionalistic model is because I have not been trying to define the whole of marriage through the government’s role in it.  Instead, I have had a much smaller goal in mind, viz., identifying the properly limited, but essential, role of the state in traditional marriage.  That role does not define the whole of marriage; you still need to account for the other two facets, which I have.  And so, by Greg’s own definition, I am not engaging in functionalism.

Hang on, it looks like the jury is returning . . . .  Ahh, not guilty.