Where the Left Gets it Right (and Wrong)
On November 15, 2012 a group of Occupy Wall Street activists, led by Andrew Ross, professor of social and cultural analysis at New York University, started Rolling Jubilee, an effort to raise money to abolish debt. While the initial goal was to raise $50,000 in order to buy one million dollars of debt, Rolling Jubilee ended up raising $400,000 and buying nearly fifteen million dollars in debt which they forgave, helping an unknown amount of people get out from under personal and medical debts they could not pay. I contributed to Rolling Jubilee and I would happily do so again. While the Occupy Movement's tactics, goals, and overall message are contradictory, utopian, communist, and sometimes dangerous, there are silver linings on dark clouds that the political right would do well to learn from.
Leftist political organizations such as Occupy gain much of their populist clout by appealing to public sympathies for the struggling underclass, for people beset by debts accrued for medical issues or loss of jobs, or students who may have got in over their heads while attaining their Master of Fine Arts degree in puppeteering (or in my case, writing). The left, however, with its long history of despotic and tyrannical governments, fails to see that collectivist action is not only possible in a capitalist economy but is, in fact, dependent on a free, capitalist economy. Websites such as Indiegogo function as collectivist money-raising platforms in order to fund projects, the arts, and charities for both individuals and organizations, many times with fantastic results. I contributed a modest amount to aid in author Tom Piccirilli's medical bills when he was diagnosed with a brain tumor. His nephew started the fundraiser in order to help with his electric bills, etc. (no, even well-published writers don't make much money) with the initial goal of five hundred dollars. He raised over twenty-four-thousand dollars.
Indiegogo was, interestingly enough, partly founded by an ex-Wall Street investor, Danae Ringelman, who sought an alternative source of funding to stage an Arthur Miller play. She then connected with two other individuals who had similar prior experiences. The group then partnered with MTV and developed what is now known as Indiegogo. The site raises millions every month for various projects and charities but it would not have been possible without capitalism and entrepreneurship.
Here is a little lesson for the left: collectivism is possible and effective only a voluntary basis within the context of a free society. The left's historical and oft-repeated sin is to make collectivism mandatory. The problem is that charity, once compelled, is no longer charity, and a collectivist project is not peaceful if it compels the rest of society to "donate" at the end of a gun. The left appears not to have confidence in their fellow individuals as charitable and compassionate beings capable generosity and, indeed, sometimes miraculous outpourings of goodwill.
Recently, the city of San Francisco granted a Make-A-Wish to a boy who had been battling cancer. He became "Bat-Kid" and the city turned out in droves to cheer him on as he wore a bat-suit, rode in a Lamborghini with police escort, rescued a damsel-in-distress and was then given the key to the city. It was a remarkable moment -- hardly a dry eye in the crowd, I imagine -- and yet another example that humanity is capable of doing amazingly good things. The crowd was there out of their own heartfelt joy and compassion. The same cannot be said of the crowds that are gathered for pseudo-events in totalitarian states such as China, Cuba, or North Korea. The people attended out of their own volition and had they instead been compelled such a beautiful moment would not have been possible.
The left would do well to learn. As taxes increase and entitlements increase, charitable giving decreases. The left also works to crowd out traditional bastions of charity such as the church and replace them with forced giving through government taxation. But this is not charity. This is not compassion.
The political right would also do well to take note of this very same fact. Often portrayed as being selfish, greedy aristocrats bent on keeping he poor in their place, Republicans should point out that freedom and capitalism enables charity and compassion by allowing men and women to freely make choices and give where they see fit; compelling people to "give back to society" through taxation limits compassion and charity. Freedom allows people to choose their preferred way of life. Want to live and work on a commune? Great, have at it. There is nothing in a free-market society that prevents people from voluntarily organizing themselves in such ways. But it is only possible in a free society where the people of that commune can utilize the market to support their endeavor through selling, sharing, and saving to keep the commune going. No matter which way it turns or form it takes, collectivism is constantly met with the specter of capital and capitalism. To eliminate one, as many left-wing activists demand, would be to eliminate the other.
The other half of the puzzle of charity and compassion is its religious context. They are virtues of the godly person, someone seeking to better mankind as a form of God's work on Earth. However, that work is eliminated through forced giving. No longer is it an act of free will in the hopes of doing God's work (or, if you're an atheist, a work that will enable the betterment of mankind as a whole). Forced giving becomes, instead, a source of anger, frustration, and humiliation. The "charity" and "compassion" is not made out of love, goodness, or any hope of mankind's betterment and therefore becomes its complete opposite. The political left's consistent and successful push to purge religion from society through the imposition of rules and regulations that violate religious beliefs means that this bastion of charity and its reasons for charitable giving are also being quickly purged from the social body. As the left eliminates the freedom of religious institutions, they fill the void with more government and forced giving. They are actually eliminating the very qualities they hope to engender in society.
The act of forced giving through taxes and various other forms of social welfare does the opposite of its stated goal, which is to help people out of a difficult place. One of those reasons is the nature of the welfare: if I willingly help my neighbor because it's the right thing to do and I want to do it, we are both made better by the experience. If I am forced to hand over money to my neighbor, I not only become bitter at my loss of personal choice, freedom, and capital, but it is also a form of humiliation for my neighbor. The act of forced giving tells the receiver that "people are not willing to help you out of the goodness of their hearts or because you are a part of the community, so we will make them help you." It ostracizes the recipient from the community.
Professor Andrew Ross, who started Rolling Jubilee, no doubt helped a large number of people and he should be praised for it. His action and that of his Occupy counterparts certainly raised the hopes and spirits of those who benefited. That is the kind of collectivist action that actually can make a difference because it emphasized the good of humanity rather than the bad. Collectivism is something that the political left does well and indeed, they usually do so quite separate from the religious institutions that have long been the source of charity from the political right and Conservatives. But what Conservatives know and the left has to learn is that charity and compassion are only possible in a free society, a society in which someone like Mr. Ross has been able to grow and learn and pursue his interests into an influential position and a society in which people have the money and means to give.
Likewise, Indiegogo would not have been possible without the work of a Wall Street investor and MTV, a corporate entity. George W. Bush used the term "Compassionate Conservatism," but, once again, his version of compassionate conservatism was linked more to what government could do, rather than what individuals, left with more money in their pockets and freed from the demands of a tax obsessed government, might do out of the kindness of their own hearts.