Traditional conservatives have been skeptical of the ability of government to solve society’s problems, or at least to do so efficiently. This is to distinguish them from those conservatives today who define truth as what they believe or that is in their perceived personal interest. An example of the latter is surely the author of the recent meme, “truth isn’t truth,” who is no doubt the heir to either Pontius Pilate or Yogi Bera.
Those conservatives I am thinking of are more in the tradition of pragmatists, like Edmund Burke, Milton Friedman, and Russell Kirk. It is hard to think of any present day examples to add to this list. I suspect they still exist, but have been silenced or shamed by those who define right by their own short-term self-interest.
I have been thinking recently about the implications of all three branches of our Federal Government being in the control of persons more conservative (by either old or current definitions) than the substantial majority of the country. The New York Times recently looked at the same trend in the context of the Supreme Court. Although the press and predictors suggest that the House of Representatives may turn toward the left in the coming election, the Senate and other branches of government are not apt to change materially.
Many of my more liberal friends despair over calls within the government to end welfare, privatize schools, and eliminate other services long seen as properly within the role of government. They also fear bans on abortions, gun controls and deregulation of many industries. While those currently in power have shown their inability to accomplish many of their goals, my friends’ concerns are legitimate, and I too share them.
For most of human history, people lived in a larger family unit and cared for each other’s needs. There was no government to provide services other than perhaps the common defense against enemies. Beginning with the Industrial Revolution, individuals moved en masse to urban areas, lost the society of their families, and with it their social safety net.
In its place and because of prevailing government policies that promoted the growth of business over the individual, private charities were formed to provide care for those in need. Tellingly, some of these organizations still exist today. The economic collapse of the Great Depression put so many in poverty that even traditional conservatives acknowledged the need for government to supplement the work of charities and even families in some extreme cases.
All this is my own sense of history, and there is plenty of room to disagree. What I want to suggest, however, is that those of us who care and feel a duty toward the less fortunate may have come to rely too much on our government and not enough on our own ability in caring for others. The National Philanthropic Trust has a history of giving that provides a useful context. If you look back at our own history, charitable giving has grown in times of need and in which we have had a greater awareness of need. Above is a chart of the Depression era and the trends in recent decades have also shown increases, though there have been increasingly fewer donors who have given greater amounts.
If we truly care about others and if the government is unwilling or unable to provide or protect, perhaps action and not despair is called for. A great deal could be accomplished if we took our personal tax savings from the recent tax cut (a rather small amount for most, but a great deal for a few) and donated it to the charity of our choice. Hands-on service can be of even greater value. I’ve tried to do both this year, but I should be doing more because the need is there and our government is not.
In time political change can occur, but until – and perhaps even – then, charity is needed. By any measure we are the most giving people in the world and have been since de Tocqueville wrote of it generations ago.
Perhaps change does begin with me.