The Paradox of Positions

| November 18, 2008 | 1 Reply

As expected, certain mouths are already looking for ways to tear down Obama and all he stands for, even though—perhaps especially because—they don’t know just what that is.  It is disheartening.

It makes me want to sit them down in a chair from which they cannot move and ask them, over and over again, just what it is they think they’ll lose by having a liberal government?  I mean, I really don’t understand this anymore.  These folks aren’t Libertarians—they have stock portfolios which display a profound faith in the System, they like living with the fruits of civilization, they certainly don’t seem to mind big government when it does what they want it to do.

Which is what exactly?

It seems they’ve divided up the world into two camps—those who have Made It and those who wish to Steal What Those Who Have Made It Have.  Hoarders and thieves, in other words.  And the governments only job is to protect the former from the latter.  It is a narrow, cramped way of seeing the world and it can only turn one into a myopic hoarder.

Here’s a paradox—at least it seems so on the face of it.  According to certain polls, conservatives are actually among the largest contributors to charitable programs, especially if they’re religiously-based.  It’s not, therefore, a question of being unwilling to give.  It only becomes a problem when it is the government doing the distributing.  Then it’s a moral problem.

Is this really a paradox?

I don’t think so, but it goes to psychology.  Here’s my thought.  The conservative believes an act of charity must be wholly voluntary and it must reflect well on the charitable.  By making relief part of the social safety net, it becomes utterly depersonalized, and no points can be made for giving.  It reduces what in the one instance can be seen as a Noble Act to nothing more than part of the tax structure.

Further, by keeping charity (because that’s the only way they see it, as charity rather than relief or compensation) personal, there’s the illusion of control.  You can judge to whom your charity goes.  If it’s part of a bureaucracy, obviously a lot of people you wouldn’t ordinarily give the time of day to will get your money.

So it’s both a control issue and a matter of self esteem.  Break it down like that, it becomes clear why conservatives loathe entitlements.

It also explains what they see as the chief fault of Liberals, namely that Liberals have no standards and are, themselves, elitists of a particular sort.  There may be something to that.  Setting up relief through government systems is on the one hand a more reliable way of making sure the relief is fairly distributed, but it also depersonalizes it for the Liberal as well.  Not that it’s a self esteem issue for them, but rather a “I’d rather not be bothered by the personal aspects of this.”

I could be wrong, and I must rely on personal experience to judge, but there does seem to be a paradox here in certain ways.  I have seen conservatives willing to roll up their sleeves and pitch in—personally—far more often than I’ve seen Liberals do it.  Liberals seem to want to just write the check and trust it will be taken care of rather than get their hands dirty.

Like all such generalizations, it begs many questions and is no doubt wrong if the sample is large enough.  And I’m more interested here in conservative reactions anyway.  And here’s one of the main problems for conservatives who seem convinced that people on relief just aren’t trying hard enough to get a job.

By making public relief a matter of state, it’s an implicit (or explicit) acknowledgment that the conditions addressed—unemployment, disability, etc—are geared into the way we live, that it is (a) not the fault of the victims and (b) part of the reason you, the taxed, are doing as well as you are.  In other words, without the poor, you wouldn’t have the disposable wealth with which to be charitable.  That makes it partly your responsibility.  This is anathema to conservative philosophy.

The whole ethic of working hard for what you have is a good one until you turn it into a basis for judgment.  There are people who work ten times harder than any Wall Street executive who get less than minimum wage.  They’re stuck in their situation for reasons that have nothing to do with character or personal morality.  There are people chronically unemployed because the system has a kind of Brownian Motion dynamic and some particles get bounced around from bad to bad to bad.  While it is true, there are people who are simply parasites, what does it matter?  To lump all people who need relief into that category in the name of smaller government and lower taxes seems incredibly shortsighted and shallow.

But there it is, as far as I think it goes—the condemnation of entitlements is a question of personal control over the feel-good button in charitable contributions.

I view the whole thing as a systemic question.  If this is the way we’re going to run things—capitalism, property rights ascendent, etc—then one of the prices for that is the fact that a certain percentage of the population at any given time will be noncontributing (economically, at least).  (One simple reason for a constant level of unemployment is the annoying consequence that full employment would translate into infinite pressure on wages.  Mathematically the system requires a degree of unemployment just to maintain the kind of equilibrium that keeps everything working the way most of us want.)  Given that, it seems a simple ethical equivalence that Society take care of those who are perpetually (as a group) outside the main flow.  What’s so hard about that?  What’s so wrong about it?

So what if a few people take advantage of the system and get away with something which, by some formulation, they may not “deserve?”  We’re talking about how a system operates to the benefit of the majority.  So what if a few people are “getting away with” something?  On the other end, up in the thin air of the financial stratosphere, there are people getting away with a lot more and doing a whole world of hurt to everyone else in the process.  We choose not to punish all of them because, in some way, what they do contributes to the longterm functioning of the whole thing.  As long as it doesn’t get out of hand, as it has so recently done.

But looking at it this way removes the moral point-making for individuals.  It’s not uncommon to find people boasting about their charity (quietly, one hopes) but you rarely hear anyone brag about paying taxes.  (A higher tax rate may feel unpleasant, but really it’s a sign of success.)

Anyway, that’s one idea I’ve had about the inner workings of the rabid right.  Not sure about it, but it feels self-consistent.  It goes to self image.

Now if they’d only admit it…

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Category: American Culture, Consumerism, Culture, Current Events, Economy, History, ignorance, Meaning of Life, Politics

About the Author ()

Mark is a writer and musician living in the St. Louis area. He hit puberty at the peak of the Sixties and came of age just as it was all coming to a close with the end of the Vietnam War. He was annoyed when bellbottoms went out of style, but he got over it.

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  1. Darby says:

    I'm probably more on the conservative side of this issue. And I can say that with my giving back to whatever social cause I deem worthy, the motivation is not self-satisfaction, but sometimes is about control. It has to do with trust.

    I would have less issue with giving the monies normally donated personally to charity and instead giving it to the government to disburse, if I believed that would happen. Admittedly, individuals' track record and the government's track record of handling finances are both stained, but the government's is irreparably so. I don't care if the government gives it away to whomever they deem needy, but the problem is that in most cases probably 80% or more is skimmed off the top before it gets disbursed.

    And talk about motivation (or lack thereof), I trust the government even less with doing the work of charity because I think THEIR motivation is even more insidious than that of a self-righteous conservative. Many politicians I see seem to be motivated to fund charities and champion social justice because it makes THEM feel good and get the control over finances, not to mention its a strategic move to please the constituency and gain job security.

    As I say this, I'll talk outside the other side of my mouth and admit that not all politicians are like that, just like not all individuals who give charitably are self-righteous control freaks.

    I guess my bottom line is, I don't like to play the game of "guess the motivation," especially when it comes to people doing good. And, which model gets the most aid into the most amount of needy hands? My answer would be the model of individuals with both a sense of responsibility for their own destiny and responsibility for their fellow man who willfully contribute, and not a moral mandate to be responsible for our fellow man, like it or not.

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