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Charity vs. Justice

March 18, 2017
When conservatives say they want to dismantle the state, or drown the federal government in a bathtub, or get big government off their backs, liberals/progressives respond by listing all the important functions government fills with regard to the public good, especially in relation to the poor and various social services. The typical comeback by conservatives is that these functions (Medicare, Social Security, WIC, food banks, education, unemployment services, etc.) can be performed better, and for less money, by charities or non-profits, particularly those related to churches.

As is evident in the recent Rolling Stone article on Betsy DeVos, apparently a nearly utopian vision of this kind of society exists in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Courtesy of the DeVos family, Grand Rapids holds forth an extensive network of church-based charitable institutions. Apparently they do a fine job of delivering services. So far, so good.
But note this excerpt from the piece:
The[re] are…systemic issues that Grand Rapids’ culture of charity fails to address. “We have a saying in West Michigan,” Jeff Smith, a community organizer, jokes: “Grand Rapids does charity really well, we just don’t do justice for shit.” Smith runs the Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy, a watchdog organization for people whose interests have largely been suppressed, he believes, by the local Dutch power brokers. “The philanthropic community here has their tentacles in so many places,” says Smith. “They’ll offer some form of safety net, but they do it primarily through mechanisms that are faith-based, so it’s an opportunity to evangelize.”
The negative results of this kind of setup, then, are twofold: First, all charitable deliveries will come with some Jesus talk. Second, charity can never address the fundamental inequalities that created the need for giving. Charity is not inclined to look for the deeper problems.
In other words, enabling powerful charities means that the possibility for discrimination in giving is probable, and that you probably perpetuate the injustices that require charitable handouts. So do conservatives care about enabling people to have jobs and livelihoods, or just the kind of hand (i.e. Christian) that delivers the goods to the poor? Or is it just about being in control—about having personal power over the lives of others?
In any case, this false creation of charitable opportunities simply perpetuates injustice. The solution is to diminish economic inequality by redistribution so that idiosyncratic standards do not decide who is worthy of goods, especially when those goods might be the difference between life and death for some families. – TL

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  1. Fundamental inequalities? OK, yes. There are inequalities because people aren’t equal. As such, in the larger contexts, inequality IS fairness. What is not fair is taking from some to give to others without those who are being reaved having any say into who their wealth is being given to.


    • And there you have the intellectual foundation of the modern right. Tautology. And of course entitlement.


    • Who is taking from whom, jonolan? What of the initial unfair assessment of employment worth—assessments made by individuals and corporations because…of history? tradition? Why are clerks and janitors valued by so much less than executives? It’s one thing to say that abilities are not equal, and another to deny human dignity to those without certain abilities—just because of arbitrary assignments of value. Human dignity is more fundamental than who can deftly handle a finance spreadsheet. – TL


      • Most often in these times it’s the government taking from the productive in order to fund its own excesses and to pander to the less materially successful.

        As for your premise on “human dignity” – My initial response is to feel pity for you, since you seem by your words to believe that a person’s dignity is based upon money and position.

        Beyond that, I would say that it is function of supply and demand. There’s always more clerks and janitors than there are people who can run businesses, business units, or large departments. Oh, and there’s a hell of a lot more to running businesses, business units, or large departments than deftly handling a finance spreadsheet.


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