What the ÒBetter PeopleÓ Get from Private Charity

By now plenty of us have seen syndicated right-wing columnist Jonah Goldberg’s hack-job piece claiming that people on “the secular left” are hypocritical meanies. According to Goldberg, in a column titled “Giving Habits tied to Political Leaning,” Godless radicals and left-liberals’ claim to care more about poverty and injustice than the religious right is a Big Lie. America’s “conservatives” are simply “better people” than the nation’s more secular and more “European”-like “left” when it comes to helping others.

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.

Oh sure, Goldberg argues, we leftists and our European comrades might argue that we prefer social justice and government anti-poverty and social welfare programs over charity. We might claim that we are willing to pay heavy taxes to minimize economic misery and advance equity. But the deep dark truth, Goldberg claims to know, is that Sam Secular just wants to give away “somebody else’s money.” We leftists, you see, are just plain mean old “statists.” We want to “the state to help everyone” so that we don’t have to help anyone. By contrast, Joe Churchgoer is willing to give away his own money (Goldberg, “Giving Habits tied to Political Leaning,” The Gazette [Iowa City and Cedar Rapids], 5 January 2006, p. 4A).

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.

People on the left care plenty about poverty and about other people, but we insist on asking why so many people are so remarkably and increasingly poor. We find the answer – with good reasons – in deeply structured systems of class, race, gender, and imperial privilege and exploitation, and we (following the advice of Martin Luther King, Jr. among other great spiritual leaders) advocate radical policy and structural changes to abolish poverty and equalize wealth.

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 still give plenty to charity. But when secular leftists with some extra money come to donation time at the end of the year, we struggle with the age old non-profit dichotomy between “direct service” and “advocacy.” We may (I have no data on this) end up giving as much to advocacy directed at systemic and societal change than we do to service (charity). This is based on our observation that poverty has deeply rooted societal origins that need to be attacked at their systemic origin in richly structured class privilege.

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 are willing to pay considerable taxes out of our own pockets to fund such government activity. We do not see “statism” as a way to let “other peoples money” take us off the hook of social obligation. We support progressive taxation on the reasonable grounds that those who get the most from society’s collective generation of wealth should give the most back. His reactionary opposition to progressive taxation is probably at the root of Goldberg’s claim that we want to spend “other people’s money.”

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.

By social capital, Simon mean[s] not only natural resources but, more important, the technology and organizational skills in the community, and the presence of good government. These are the foundation[s] on which the rich can began their work. ‘On moral grounds,’ Simon added, ‘we could argue for a flat income tax of 90 percent.’” (Singer, “What should a Billionaire Give – and What Should You?,” New York Times Magazine, December 17, 2006, p. 61). Singer might want to put the word “earn” in quotes (it’s more about taking than “earning”) and factor in the role that capitalist labor exploitation (the extraction of what Marx called surplus value, technically unpaid) plays in creating “elite” wealth, but the point is well taken.

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.

But there’s another, deeper and darker matter that Goldberg naturally ignores. Since turnabout is fair play, we are entitled to ask an interesting question: what do “conservatives” (who tend to be wealthier than leftists and liberals) get from private charity?

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 dampen the fires of poor peoples’ ever-present potential for rebellion in ways that don’t threaten to expand popular governance’s potential to re-emerge as a ground for radical-democratic societal “restructuring” and national priority reordering along the lines advocated by democratic socialists like Martin Luther King, Jr.

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

Last but not least, and this should not be underestimated – especially when it comes to assessing the motives of affluent charity advocates – they get to enjoy the special perverse psychological wage of superficial symptom-centered private giving. They get to feel like enlightened aristocrats and noble benefactors as they imagine the disadvantaged multitudes flocking around their Golden Carriages, begging for crumbs from the tables of the supposedly superior and deservedly privileged.

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.

For what its worth, Jesus advised the wealthy to abolish themselves if they wanted to get passage into the only Kingdom that mattered in his opinion (see Garry Wills, What Jesus Meant [New York: Viking, 2006]).

Paul Street (paul[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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