Believe me, I am a fan of the free market. And of private enterprise. And of private charity. But the notion that no balance is required here – that the private sector can do it all and that, when it comes to taxes and government, less is always better – well, I just don’t buy it.

No one likes taxes, but they are a relatively efficient way to collect money for things most of us agree are necessary – police forces, fire departments, public school systems, roads, the armed forces, and some mechanism to help the truly needed from dying in our streets.

Charities have a much warmer place in our hearts, but the first 30 cents of every dollar you give goes to the hotel and the caterer and the florist and sending out the invitations; or to the printing and postage; or to the company that employs the folks who call you at home in the middle of dinner. And it’s not clear that the remaining 70 cents (or whatever the number, depending on the charity) is always brilliantly allocated, either.

Is charity worth supporting – being ever vigilant in hopes of making it ever more effective? Yes! Is government? Yes, too.

Matthew Miller’s latest column makes this point awfully well. He writes:

Among the many useful tonics bequeathed by Sept. 11 is the exposure of the hoax that the most effective way to render aid is always charity, not government. Now – surprise! – it turns out that charity involves bureaucracy and politics, too.

The gyrations at the Red Cross are exhibit A. First that organization staged the most confidence-busting executive change in memory when it tossed out CEO Bernadine Healy at a teary press conference at which neither the board doing the firing nor the woman getting the boot could veil their contempt for each other.

Then came the revelation that the Red Cross, in a bait and switch that has apparently been its standard operating procedure after high-profile disasters, planned to hold back a big chunk of the record sums raised since Sept. 11 for ‘future needs’ unrelated to the 9/11 victims. (The organization has now done an about-face.)

But the Red Cross woes are only the beginning. Already the patchwork of funds set up to cope with the tragedy are awash in thorny questions. Should victims who’ve gotten help from charities have their help from other charities and government reduced by that amount? This seems only fair, but how should this be tracked and coordinated? Are some victims trying to double- and even triple-dip? And why should the 9/11 victims get so much more than the victims of, say, the Oklahoma City bombing, not to mention countless other smaller but still awful tragedies?

Conservative commentators (like the Wall Street Journal editorial page) say this all proves that modern bureaucratic culture has ruined charity by making it as complicated and rule-bound as government. ‘Can’t we just give cash to the people who need it?’ they cry.

The truth, however, is that once you move past the level of soup kitchens and start dealing with mass tragedies and resources, these issues are perfectly predictable – and show instead the bankruptcy of the conservative strategy to discredit government and install charity in its place.

This notion has been a staple of the right’s rhetoric for years, from Newt Gingrich’s call to replace welfare spending with individually earmarked charity tax credits, to George W. Bush’s plan to have faith-based charities play a bigger role in helping the poor.

Now let’s be clear: Spiritual organizations do great work in helping people turn around their lives, and government should help these groups do more. But the larger conservative project served by this rhetoric was to de-legitimize (and defund) government while protecting against charges that conservatives lacked compassion.

It was a great gig while it lasted. When Gingrich asked, ‘Who would you rather give your money to, Mother Teresa or Donna Shalala?’ there wasn’t any doubt about who’d win that bake-off.

But once you got past the sound bite, the logic was always dubious. For one thing, charity remains tiny compared with the size of modern misfortune. Charity has raised $1 billion or so since the attacks. That’s fabulous. But President Bush has already called for $40 billion to deal with the fallout, and more is on the way. So charity, while well-meaning, only tinkers at the margin.

What’s more, private compassion is fickle and selective – a fact of life that Adam Smith, that conservative patron saint, recognized long ago. In a famous passage, Smith wrote that a man in Europe would not be able to sleep if he knew he was to lose his little finger tomorrow, but would snore soundly after learning of an earthquake that killed a hundred million Chinese – because the latter were so far from his field of vision, and pity.

Such are the perils of reliance on private compassion – as they are learning at all the non-9/11 charities, where donations have dried up in the wake of the attacks.

What we need are public institutions imbued with what the philosopher Martha Nussbaum calls ‘a properly educated compassion,’ which offsets our inevitable blind spots as individuals while honoring our deepest values. When we design such institutions well, it’s not some alien force that is doing our bidding, but ourselves – because in a democracy, government, like charity, is us. Only better.

In the meantime, if calls to privatize America’s safety net have vanished with the twin towers, then some good will already be coming from this evil.

Matt Miller is a senior fellow at Occidental College in Los Angeles. His column is distributed by Tribune Media Services. © 2001 MATTHEW MILLER


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