Why Government Can't Be Compassionate
Watching the old film The Bounty, I was struck by the depiction of the horrors of Captain Bligh's authority — and the charming face of the mutineers, especially Lt. Fletcher Christian, played by a young Mel Gibson. Taking the historical tale as a starting point, the film transforms events of the past into the controlling myth of our present: the overriding virtue of compassion and self-gratification. Ours is an age in which the "easy way out" is always the right way out.
Compassion is a wonderful quality, but not in every situation. It is not good to be compassionate during war, or preparation for war. Or in business dealings. Or in education and training (to paraphrase T.S. Eliot, no student should ever be denied the right to fail). Or in government in general.
For a government to be compassionate, it must obtain the necessary revenue to fund that compassion. To do so in a meaningful way, government needs, at a minimum, for these purposes alone, somewhere between twenty and thirty percent of its citizens' income, the amount claimed in Europe and Canada for welfare-associated spending. And this on top of what is needed for routine operations of government: policing, courts, military, infrastructure, and public education.
In welfare states like France, with its marginal rate of 55.4%, affluent citizens are forced to hand over more than half of their earnings. The more successful one is, the more one is taxed. At one point, the French government discussed imposing a marginal rate of 100% or more, taxing not just all of one's earnings but seizing one's capital as well. As a result, many successful individuals such as actor Gerard Dépardieux left the country. High European tax rates are one of the reasons why Monaco is home to so many wealthy individuals, including dozens of billionaires and celebrities such as Novak Djokovic and Björn Borg.
The U.S. is not there yet, but it is well on its way to becoming a European-style welfare state. Welfare states operate by seizing the income of their citizens. It is a mistake to think there are no victims in this process, or to think that the burden is just on what progressives like to call "the rich."
Still, the wealthy have a way out: they can pass along the cost of higher taxes to those who use their products and services. In inflationary times, companies increase prices to maintain earnings, and those earnings are shared by investors. Ironically, the lower income groups are harmed by higher taxes on the rich, since those taxes are passed along in the form of higher prices. The more "compassionate" government becomes, the more it harms the poor.
It is also possible for the wealthy to flee high-tax countries or states, and here again the burden falls on the poor. Deprived of the investment capital of the wealthy and the expert services of the upper-middle class, the standard of living in high-tax regions declines. Absent the means of production, shortages and wait times increase. Again the burden of taxation falls on the poor, the very ones that "compassionate" countries like France and states like California purportedly attempt to help.
There is an additional problem with compassionate government. When government collects and redistributes half of a society's GDP, a great deal gets lost in fraud, inefficiency, and harmful programs. A program like Job Corps, which has been rated a failure every year for decades, was funded at $1.7 billion in FY2021. According to a Heritage Fund report, "[c]osting $25,000 per participant over an average participation period of eight months, the program is a waste of taxpayers' dollars."
Every "compassionate" government program ends up stealing from the poor in terms of the goods and services it deprives them of. According to the GAO, when government creates a program to assist the poor, "[a] significant portion of these funds cover administrative costs rather than direct benefits and services." But as Heritage points out, "[t]he true cost of welfare or aid to the poor is largely unknown because the spending is fragmented into myriad programs." When federal grants are sent to the states, and from the states to cities, from cities to local charities, from charities to the poor, very little of the original revenue reaches those who were supposed to be helped.
This is not to say that one should not be compassionate, but compassion should be expressed through private charities. In some cases, but hardly all, private charities do a better job than government in helping the needy. (According to Consumer Reports, Catholic Relief Services and Boys and Girls Clubs of America are efficient, while a number of others are not.)
Private charity is not just about helping the needy — it is also a means of resisting government control, as did Hobby Lobby when the Obama administration attempted to force its idea of charity on the company. Governments recognize this fact and do what they can to block religious and civic groups that engage in charity. As Aldous Huxley wrote in an essay on "Decentralization and Self-Government," once socialism has gained control, "charity would be, not merely superfluous, but actually criminal. Good Samaritans would be prosecuted for daring to interfere" with federal agencies (Collected Essays 262).
And government control is certainly an issue when it comes to charity. As Fox Business points out, a provision in the $1.7-trillion omnibus spending bill just passed "states that 'not less than' $575 million 'should be made available for family planning/reproductive health, including in areas where population growth threatens biodiversity or endangered species.'" When human populations get in the way of Pacific salmon, progressives think we need to cut human populations. Biden's immense spending bills are loaded with just his sort of compassion — for fish, bees, flowers, but not for humans.
Despite their repeated "war on poverty," progressives are not actually compassionate. There is overwhelming evidence that conservatives are more charitable than liberals, on a personal level, but there is also a century of history to show that progressives policies don't work for the poor. Are Chicago, Los Angeles, Detroit, St. Louis, Baltimore, and other Democrat cities any better off than they were a century ago? Yet Biden's bloated spending is an effort to nationalize the failed policies of these cities.
Socialism under a ruling elite is the nightmare scenario that America now faces. If Biden has his way, we will all become welfare clients wearing something akin to prison garb, eating poisonous prison fare purchased with food stamps, riding bicycles or E.V. mini-cars to work, consuming government-censored media 24/7, and living our pointless lives in return for the doubtful promise that government will provide lifetime benefits and care for us in our old age. Our future will make communist China look like the Promised Land.
The newly elected House of Representatives has an opportunity to reduce federal spending, but to do so, it will have to eliminate many social programs predicated upon compassion. If entirely successful, we could return to the condition that existed during the first 125 years of our history, in which, as Thomas Jefferson believed, tariff collections would cover the entire expense of government. Imagine how much private charity would be possible if government spending were cut to the bone and personal and corporate taxes eliminated.
Jeffrey Folks is the author of many books and articles on American culture including Heartland of the Imagination (2011).
Image via Max Pixel.