I hear this all the time: “It’s wrong to force people to be charitable. Charity is something that should be done on an individual level, by individuals, for individuals. It’s not something government should be involved in.”
I used to think this. I was wrong.
My first mistake was not realizing that equality of opportunity is a public good. It is as critical as clean air to a healthy society. And without vigilance, it can be lost. Right now, the U.S. ranks near the bottom of industrialized nations in social mobility. We like to think of the U.S. as a unique place of opportunity where anyone can make if they’re willing to work hard. Unfortunately, comparative data suggests this is no longer the case. Today, kids in the U.S. with poor parents are more likely to grow up to be poor (and kids with rich parents are more likely to be rich) than kids in most European countries. As one individual humorously observed (or not so humorously, if you care about these things), the American dream is alive in well. . . in Finland.
My next mistake was not understanding the incentives involved in the provision of public goods. In social science research, the challenges created by these incentives are referred to as public good dilemmas. The basic problem is that once public goods have been produced, everyone benefits from them. This creates an incentive for individuals to wait until others bear the expense of providing them.
My third mistake was not understanding that a complex economy is characterized by specialization, and that in the case of public goods, this specialization often requires centrally coordinated action.
In the case of national defense, for example, most folks seem to understand this. We decide, as a society, how we want to provide for our collective defense. Once we’ve decided–through democratic processes–what we want to do, then everyone is obligated to contribute, and contributions are pooled and managed by institutions set up for that purpose.
Imagine two neighhoods each contemplating building a public park. In the first neighborhood, they hold a town meeting, the majority vote to build a park, they collect the required funds by levying a neighborhood home owner’s fee, and they build the park. The cost of the park represents a wise investment, given that the cost of the park is significantly less than the collective value derived from it.
In the second neighborhood, in which a park is equally favored, it is decided that it’s wrong to “force” everyone to contribute to the park. They hold a town meeting, the majority vote to build a park, and a call goes out for donations. Because each resident reasons that the best course of action is to wait for others to bear the costs of the park, relatively few contribute. Although the park would represent a wise investment for the neighborhood, it is never built.
The point is that public goods have to be provided in a certain way. One of the most effective ways to ensure that a public good is NOT produced is to prohibit groups from obligating members to contribute to its provision. If you want to lower defense spending by 90%, make contributions voluntary. . .
Leaving the provision of a public good up to individuals is asking too much. It asks individuals to act against their own immediate self interest (i.e. to not free-ride), and that’s a hurdle that groups rarely overcome, even if an overwhelming majority of the group support a proposed activity.
Imagine if the same constraints imposed on efforts to reduce income inequality by some on the religious right were applied to other types of collective action:
1) All those in favor of building a new sports stadium, please bring $100 cash and come down this Saturday and Sunday to help pour concrete. . .
2) All those in favor of building public roads, please contribute $100 a month to the road maintenance fund and be sure to mark the fifth Saturday of every month to come out and fill potholes. . .
3) All those in favor of invading Iraq, please send in $3000 and notify your employer you may need to take 6 months off work. . . (assuming you successfuly complete basic training).
What does it say about our country if it’s okay to “force” everyone to contribute to public roads, the military, the court system, various regulatory bodies, veterans affairs, sports stadiums, etc., but when it comes to guaranteeing equal opportunity for the next generation, we balk?
This quote seems apt:
“If this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn’t help the poor, either we have to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we’ve got acknowledge that He commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition and then admit that we just don’t want to do it.” –Stephen Colbert
An even better question is why an overwhelming majority of the members of the LDS church seem to latch on to any excuse–no matter how transparent or contrived–to justify policies that not only fail to address the problem, but would actually–in the name of “incentives” and “efficient” markets–make things worse.
For Mormons who take their religion seriously, King Benjamin’s sermon should be as relevant in the voting booth as it is in Sunday school.
[Last Post: 33 Loving Those Who Choose the Other Road]