A fundamental tenet of the liberal faith is the primacy of the government's role in our lives. Conservatives agree that government does have a role, and a necessary one, but feel it's only one institution of many. There's also the family, the church, the community.
That's what makes a new article in The Atlantic magazine so predictable and so refutable. Writer Mike Konczal addresses what he claims is "The Conservative Myth of a Social Safety Net Built on Charity."
"Conservatives tell themselves a story, a fairy tale really, about the past, about the way the world was and can be again under Republican policies," he writes. "This story is about the way people were able to insure themselves against the risks inherent in modern life. Back before the Great Society, before the New Deal, and even before the Progressive Era, things were better. Before government took on the role of providing social insurance, individuals and private charity did everything needed to insure people against the hardships of life; given the chance, they could do it again."
Stop right there. That's a straw man argument — no conservative thinker claims there's no role for government in providing a safety net. Konczal misrepresents the conservative position in order to make it easier to refute. But he's refuting a myth himself.
In fact, the conservative position is laid out comprehensively in a book Konczal himself cites, Marvin Olasky's "The Tragedy of American Compassion." Olasky explains that in the past, families, communities and churches have played a larger role in helping the poor. But government also always had a role.
But here's the main point of Olasky's book: families, communities and churches have always done a better job of helping — because of proximity and accountability.
The closer the needy person is to the provider, the more effective the help is. A family helping one of its own members in need is the most effective form of assistance; a check from an anonymous government bureaucracy that requires no accountability is the least effective form.
No one — repeat, no one — is talking about eliminating government assistance for the poor. In fact, conservatives such as Rep. Paul Ryan support reforming Social Security and Medicaid precisely because they want to preserve them for future generations.
"Medicare and Social Security are going bankrupt," he said in 2013. "These are indisputable facts. And Social Security? If we don't shore up Social Security, when we run out of the IOUs, when the program goes bankrupt, a 25 percent across-the-board benefit cut kicks in on current seniors in the middle of their retirement."
Konczal is right to point out that private charity fell off during the Great Recession. That's not evidence for the private sector's — and here we mean the undeniably generous American people's — ability to help their neighbors. Instead, it's evidence of how much the private sector has been crowded out of the compassion arena.
The most fundamental point here is that both the public sector and the private sector have roles to play in helping the poor.