As religion has faded in American life, it has been replaced by socialistic impulses that supposedly aim at the same goal—helping the poor—but fall short in both the means and the end.
Kyle Sammin writes at The Federalist describing the spiritual rot at the top of the social pyramid that is spreading down to the rest of the country.
Even if the results of religious charity and social welfare were the same (they’re not) having socialism take the place of religion is bad for people’s souls. Successful people who adhere to it walk about in constant guilt, not over actual sins against God, but over the success they or their ancestors achieved, which socialism damns as impure. There is no forgiveness, no absolution, only taxes. The promise of that next-level American Dream—helping others achieve theirs—is replaced with bureaucratic drudgery and permanent penance.
Producing Terrible Results
Of course, the aim of charity and of the welfare state is to help the poor, not to lift up the souls of the rich. If the welfare state did a wonderful job of achieving its goals, we could be forgiven for ignoring its other flaws. But it does nothing of the sort. Instead, the disconnection of the helper from the helped with its consequent lack of responsibility turns the voluntary act of charity from an involved donor into a coerced transfer from a disinterested taxpayer.
The disconnection is bad for donor and recipient. People who receive government benefits are confronted with a bewildering system of programs, each with its own unique requirements, all administered by a bureaucracy that will exist whether the poor get the benefits or not. All of this is controlled from Washington and ruled by mandates of an ever-shifting political class that imposes whatever level of strictness or leniency it thinks will win the most votes at the next election.
It also adds to the larger problem of people being alienated from society. The decline of cultural institutions has many causes, but one must be the replacement of volunteering and charity with taxes and bureaucracy. People lament the fall of institutions that once included broad swathes of society, but the only answer our politicians have, whether with regard to charities or any other local group, is more government. And more government always ends up being more centralized government, and thus more alienation.
Charity Is Not Welfare
Charities and the welfare systems sound similar, but have subtly different results in mind. Charity hopes to lessen poverty and even to lift some people out of it, but does not assume the problem can ever be cured. The welfare state, in its hubris, claims nothing less than the eradication of want as its goal. The War on Poverty has dragged on for more than 50 years and costs more with each passing budget, but no end is in sight.
In uprooting and centralizing Americans’ charitable impulses into a bureaucracy, we have removed any responsibility from donors. How often have you heard someone decline to give to someone in need in his own community, then complain the federal safety net is not strong enough? When something becomes everyone’s responsibility, it is effectively no one’s responsibility. No one looks into welfare programs to see that they are actually helping in their community; all they do is complain about politicians and vote the way they were going to vote already.
Practitioners of religious charity could have predicted this. They occupy the ideological middle ground between socialists who demand ever more resources for bureaucratic programs that do not work and libertarians who see the failure of these programs and demand that we cease our efforts. Both, in their ideology, lose track of the impetus behind charity: it is good to help people. It is good for the recipient of aid, good for the donor, and good for society.
True charity, with its lack of coercion, benevolent intentions, limited aims, and true connection between giver and receiver, is one of the finest ideas in any society. By forcing it under state control through erecting an expensive welfare state, we have done no favors to the poor and made the rich and middle-class more useless and disconnected from their fellow Americans. Charity is not always talked about as a part of the American Dream, but it has always been there. Slowly, the welfare state has been squeezing the life out of this part of the American Dream, replacing it with social alienation and bureaucracy.