Thursday, August 20, 2015

The Tragedy of American Compassion

By Marvin Olasky
Reviewed by Robert A. Sirico, CSP
July 22, 1992

No doubt you have had the experience of being stopped on the street by a somewhat inebriated panhandler. Whether or not you reached into your pocket and pulled out a dollar, perhaps the thought went through your mind, as it has through mine, "Maybe I'm not really doing this guy a favor by providing him with more money to buy cheap wine."

If you've experienced this sense of ambivalence in the face either of the panhandler, or the welfare system as a whole, and if you felt guilty about it, Marvin Olasky's book is for you.

The Tragedy of American Compassion is an excellent study of this frequently misunderstood topic, and will, one hopes, dispel the politically correct miasma in which so many well-intended people dwell with regard to assistance to those economically indigent. This book is particularly timely in light of the aftermath of the King verdict and the search for an appropriate social response.

Professor Olasky is not merely musing on these matters from some safe ivory tower. In 1990 he put on some old clothes and a cap and left his suburban home to roam the streets of Washington, D.C., and take a firsthand look at what the life of the poor and homeless is really like.

What he found concerned him, and prompted him to study the history of the compassion industry in the United States. His basic discovery was that the problem of poverty was much less a problem of getting material assistance to those in need, as much as it was a problem of establishing a human bonding, what he calls "affiliation," which in turn provides role models and incentives for those who want to find a way out of economic deprivation.

Dr. Olasky, a professor of  journalism at the University of Texas at Austin, provides us with a  readable yet thoroughly documented survey of the way in which poverty has been dealt with in  American history. His research demonstrates that the current dilemma is not fundamentally different from what we have confronted in our past, and his work ought to provide contemporary policy planners with a road map of the pitfalls to avoid.

As Dr. Olasky sees it, the failure of the welfare state lies in the subtle yet definite shift in an understanding of what compassion is.

True compassion, he reminds us, means to "suffer with" another. The bureaucratization of compassion, on the other hand, has reduced its meaning to "giving to" another, and Dr. Olasky concludes that this political compassion constitutes "the substitution of depersonalized dependence for true compassion." These differing definitions produce differing approaches to poverty, with differing effectiveness in ameliorating it.

Mr. Olasky documents the consequences of politicized compassion:
  • With the rise in governmental welfare programs comes a decline in individual giving to the usually more cost-effective, private charities;
  • Public assistance makes poor Americans more dependent, as more than 40% of  the poor themselves report;
  • The shift from seeing welfare programs as temporary charitable assistance for the "worthy poor" to seeing these programs as "entitlements" and "rights" has resulted in a permanent and ever-expanding pool of  applicants. 
  • With an increase in governmental programs for single mothers comes a decreased sense of marital obligation and the erosion of  the institution of marriage and the family.
Early in his work, Mr. Olasky explodes the myth that the United States awaited the New Deal to introduce well-funded and effective poverty fighting programs. By unearthing newspaper accounts, diaries, board minutes, and financial records, Mr. Olasky is able to reconstruct the fascinating history of agencies (mostly religious) that offered material assistance, as well as friendship, guidance, and spiritual support to unwed mothers, alcoholics, widows, orphans. immigrants, and a host of others in need, thereby touching the deeper human need represented by poverty.

I have two criticisms of this otherwise splendid work. The first is the recurring blemish of Mr. Olasky's use of the phrase "points of light." Perhaps if this phrase, poetic as it is, were not so closely associated with President Bush, whose administration, at least in part, appears enamored of the very welfare state so masterfully laid to waste in this particular text, it would not be so distracting.

My second criticism is somewhat more serious and has to do with what I consider a very dangerous recommendation made in the closing chapter of the book. Knowing that it is frequently the very religious inspiration of private charitable agencies that enables them to minister with authentic compassion to those in need, Dr. Olasky argues that such charities ought to be able to receive government grants without anti-religious strings attached.

This line of reasoning, however, overlooks the fact that the negative impact of governmentally funded programs is not solely due to their lack of spiritual orientation although this is certainly a major factor. The problem is deeper.

In addition to their secular bias, the very nature of tax-supported bureaucracies, with their lack of direct, non-political accountability to their funding source (i.e., the taxpayer),  results in a set of economic disincentives to actually get people out of poverty, as the whole of Mr. Olasky's book demonstrates. The last thing in the world we need is to set that deleterious dynamic into motion within the only institutions proven capable of attacking the very root of poverty.

The Tragedy of American Compassion demonstrates how bad charity drives out good charity and how the problem with current welfare policy is not that it is too lavish but that it is too stingy in what it offers to the poor.  It should be made required reading for anyone in the compassion business. For some, this may indeed be a mortification to see the received wisdom of the welfare establishment so cogently challenged.

Yet, this will be no more painful a penance than the unintended misery resulting from not meditating on and applying the truths of human nature Professor Olasky so finely retrieves and elucidates.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

The Sandinistas' Faithful Pilgrims

The Sandinistas' Faithful Pilgrims
by Robert A. Sirico
March 13, 1990

The story behind the story of the crushing defeat of the Sandinistas is as interesting as the upset itself. Why has this democratic victory surprised so many in the U.S., notably in the religious community?

The answer lies in part in the religious press, which all too frequently towed the Sandinista line imported by liberal pilgrims who had gone to Managua for confirmation of their faith in the revolution. Turn to the classified section of most U.S. religious periodicals. You will find evidence of a cottage industry dedicated to sending North Americans to Central America to see for themselves the degree of support for the revolution.

The pages of the National Catholic Reporter provide a good example. Rosemary Radford Ruether, a feminist theologian who writes frequently for the Reporter, returned from Nicaruaga breathless at the “riot of political liberty” she observed there (Feb. 23). “No need to worry about the names or ideas being overheard,” she reported. The Nicaraguans interviewed by the pollsters clearly didn’t share this opinion. Neither did the bishop I spend an evening with in Managua in January. As we sat talking in his rectory, he literally looked over his shoulder before mildly criticizing the government.

Based on this and other discussions I had during my stay in Nicaragua, it was no surprise to me that the Sandinistas were routed. When I returned to the U.S. I publicly predicted that if the elections were free and secret, as it appears they would be, the Sandinistas would be turned out because they did not enjoy general support. When I stated this at a meeting of people interested in Central America, some other veterans of Nicaraguan field trips disagreed. My contention was that they were na├»ve, if well-intentioned, pilgrims who went supporting the revolution, and failed to notice that somewhere along the line it had been co-opted. They replied that they were sure they had “been in touch with the people.” That was on Feb. 14.

This grand hypothesis was slain by one ugly little fact: the events of Feb. 25. To understand the depth of voters’ rejection of the Sandinistas is not enough to say that Violetta Chamorro received 55% of the vote. One must add to this number the 5% who voted for minor candidates and put on top of that an additional 10% or so for those who voted with their feet by leaving the country before the election and who were not allowed to vote by absentee ballot. Consider also that, given the context of the fear that distorted the polls, of the 40% who did vote for the Sandinistas, a portion of that number could be considered soft, especially where people worked for the government.

This all amounts to an overwhelming rejection. Yet everyone was so surprised: the media, the pollsters, the religious community and the Sandinistas.

Even the U.S. administration, days before the election, began to prepare for a Sandinista victory. An awkward question thus arises: If the administration seriously thought the Sandinistas were popular enough to survive a free vote, why did it maintain trade sanctions and support the Contras?

Conservatives too have set themselves up for criticism. While supporting an economic embargo against Nicaragua in the hope of bringing pressure to bear on the government for a more open and free society, they also opposed sanctions against South Africa arguing (correctly, I believe) that an economic embargo would hurt the very people it is designed to help.

It is true that the Contra war and the economic boycott harmed the Nicaraguan economy. Unfortunately this allows the Sandinistas to excuse their mismanagement of the economy and obscure the fundamental reason for their rejection. Nicaraguans rejected them for the same reason Eastern Europeans rejected communist regimes: The Sandinistas socialized the economy, systematically drove out enterprise, and curtailed civil liberties. They created a hostile environment for the only mechanism known to produce wealth: the free market. This did not harm just big landowning oligarchs whose holdings were questionable even from a capitalistic frame of reference. Small-businessmen, professionals, and a host of would-be entrepreneurs were driven out as well.

The healing of Nicaragua is only just commencing. Much must be done to create a climate of liberty and stability. One hopes that this will be done without control from outside powers. It is clear, however, that these war-torn, noble and hospitable people have, like their Eastern European counterparts, taken the first fledging steps in this direction.