October 23, 2007

Thoughts on Charity and Government

Ezra Klein makes what I think is an important point, which allows me to make a rare statement elaborating a bit of my own loosely-defined personal political theories. Ezra:

Charity is good for the giver and, generally, good for the receiver. But it's not what you build your society upon. It's not reliable, or predictable, or particularly targetable. Indeed, very little philanthropy actually goes into the areas that social policy focuses on. And that's because it's not supposed to. Charity, rather often, is a way to demonstrate virtue or compassion. Social policy, at least in theory, is a way to try and fix a structural problem. The two cannot be swapped in for each other.
I've been an active supporter of the charity Habitat for Humanity for going on seven and a half years now. I have probably personally hammered nails, painted walls, or shoveled dirt at the sites of over 70 or 80 homes across the United States (and the world), and have worked with many of the future homeowners and hundreds of other volunteers in the course of doing so. I've donated a good bit of my own money to the cause as well, although I'm still at the stage in my life where donations of time and labor are a lot easier for me to make than monetary ones; having made such an investment at this point, though, it's reasonable to assume that those financial contributions will increase as my means to make them does.

I think Habitat does a lot of good work. And I am proud of the work I have done with it: through my efforts families have been able to achieve home ownership when they might otherwise never have enjoyed that stability that my fortunes have afforded me since birth. Habitat has offered a crucial hand up for these people and their lives have been impacted by it, just as those of the volunteers who work with them have. Developing a spirit of civic volunteerism is another important aspect of charity work, as I've attempted to express before. Private, non-governmental charitable groups play a very important role in policy-making, by advocating for issues and energizing constituencies to participate in the democratic political process. Living in politically apathetic Japan for two years made me realize how rich U.S. society is in that regard.

But the simple fact is that Habitat, for all its lofty vision, is not going to house the world on its own, one family at a time. There was an immense impact for every family whose home I have helped build, but on the national scale these are tiny changes — even more minuscule on the global scale. While charities may lead attention to an issue, ultimately I think broad changes, at the structural level as Ezra correctly seeks to place them, in major social policy areas like affordable housing, education, the environment, and health care, can only be effected by an agency as powerful and far-reaching as the government. And the fact that I do think it is just and proper for the government to be directed towards those goals is a major reason why I am not a conservative.

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