Sunday, August 19, 2012

Taking and Giving

Antony Davies and Kristina Antolin on Paul Ryan's Catholicism and the Poor:

Wealth and poverty are catalysts for bringing the rich and the poor together in community, and community is the hallmark of the church's mission on Earth. Government is not community. Government is one of community's tools, a coercive one we use when it is necessary to force people to behave in ways they would not otherwise behave voluntarily.

But that word—voluntarily—is key, and it's where Mr. Ryan's religious detractors go awry: Charity can only be charity when it is voluntary. Coerced acts, no matter how beneficial or well-intentioned, cannot be moral. If we force people to give to the poor, we have stripped away the moral component, reducing charity to mere income redistribution. And if one really is as good as the other, the Soviets demonstrated long ago that it can be done far more efficiently without the trappings of church and religion.

All people have the moral obligation to care for those who are less fortunate. But replacing morality with legality is the first step in replacing church, religion and conscience with government, politics and majority vote. Coercing people to feed the poor simply substitutes moral poverty for material poverty.

There is no doubt that Catholics (and all Christians for that matter) have an obligation to help the least and the lost. However, determing the best methods for how that help is provided is open to debate. If Paul Ryan believes that X percent of government spending should go towards efforts to alleviate poverty while progressive Catholics believe it should be Y or if Paul Ryan believes that tax rates should be X and progressive Catholics prefer Y, it doesn't mean that the latter group is more committed to helping the poor or more closely following the teachings of the Church than he is. It just means they have different views on the best means to achieve the same ends.

The reality is that while it would no doubt be prefferable to have all such assistance provided volutarily (for the reasons cited in the article), there is a need for the government to continue to be involved. Whether that involvement should be direct or whether the government should provide funding to groups best able to deliver critical services is worthy of discussion. As is a broader conversation about the appropriate scale and scope of the government's involvement in this area (and others). This is exactly the sort of thing we should be talking about before November's election and why having Paul Ryan on the ticket has changed the game.