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What the “Better People” Get from Private Charity


The proof, Goldberg says, is in public administration professor Arthur Brooks’ purported discovery that we give less time and money to charity than do “conservatives” and “Christians.” In this, we American secular leftists are like those selfish and secular Europeans, who, Goldberg claims, give much less money and time to charity than America’s disproportionately conservative and religious population.

I have no idea if the professor’s data is accurate and I won’t be chasing his data set down anytime soon. But that’s okay. Let’s just assume the academic in question – a fellow named Dr. Arthur Brooks – is one hundred percent correct. Let’s not quibble with Brooks’ numbers. We can accept them completely and still conclude that Jonah Goldberg is full of crap.

That’s why you often see that famous poster of the Catholic bishop Dom Helder Camara in many a secular-leftist activist’s or intellectual’s office or den. I’m talking about the one that quotes Camara as follows: “When I fed the hungry, they called me a saint. When I asked why people are hungry, they called me a communist” (how’s that for some mean-spirited secular leftism?). Leftists are sincere when they say they worry about getting stuck at the superficial level of just treating symptoms and ignoring causes. We talk and work a lot around social-historical taproots. We genuinely worry that charity simply perpetuates injustice and puts band-aids on gangrene, and you become a dirty rotten Red.

We have little attachment to the State per se but we have good reasons to see public sector institutions as indispensable and relevant avenues both or poverty-reducing direct service and for anti-poverty systemic change.

We honestly think the rich owes much, even (especially for those of us on the real left) most of its wealth back to the collectivity and therefore that progressive taxation is actually about taking the people’s own money back for the broader social good. As the Princeton ethics professor Peter Singer recently noted in a New York Times Magazine article arguing for private donations to charity, “the Nobel-Prize-winning economist and social scientist Herbert Simon estimate[s] that ‘social capital’ is responsible for at least 90 percent of what people earn in wealthy societies like those of the United States or northwestern Europe.

Goldberg claims that we “selfish” secular leftists gain advantages from our embrace of the “high tax welfare state.” He conveniently ignores the fact that broad populations benefit enormously from serious and substantive public social welfare. The considerably greater strength of the supposedly evil and “left” “welfare state” in Europe is – along with other and related factors (including the greater strength of trade unions, left parties, and egalitarian values generally) – the main reason that nations like France, Germany, Italy, Norway and Denmark exhibit much smaller poverty rates and considerably higher rates of overall physical and social health and democracy than the relatively regressive and stunted United States.

They get quite a bit. They get tax deductions, of course but the gains are much deeper and darker than that. They get to support private programs that advance their religious and ideological agendas against the public sector, which they find dangerously polluted with popular and democratic impuses and sentiments. They get to buttress their plutocratic case that tax-supported government programs are unnecessary and dysfunctional.

They get to feel altruistic while continuing to enjoy the existence of an easily exploited, increasingly and often desperately impoverished working and lower class.

Going from charity to justice would take that narcissistic, bourgeois and false-Christian rush away from the “better people” to whom Jonah Goldberg pledges moral allegiance.

Paul Street ([email protected]) is a veteran radical historian, speaker, policy analyst and journalist in Iowa City, IA. He is the author of Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, November 2004); Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (New York, NY: Routledge, 2005); and Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis: A Living Black Chicago History (New York, 2007).

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