Right or Left Anti-Poor?
by Donald Devine
Issue 221– February 13, 2013
I must admit it surprises me that at my cynical old age I am still shocked how progressives think about conservatives. Sure, there are paranoids in every philosophy but I am talking about the top representatives of that ideology.
In the final news conference of his first term, President Barack Obama stood in the East Room of the White House and declared that conservative House Republicans “have suspicions about whether government should make sure that kids in poverty are getting enough to eat.”
That is pretty raw about one’s opponents in a democracy. Perhaps a politician cannot be sophisticated enough to make a civil case? How about the person that former President Bill Clinton gave the credit for creating his new more moderate Democrat philosophy and is now the Washington Post’s regular columnist on politics, E.J. Dionne, Jr.? Certainly one can get a more balanced view from such an intellectual.
Identifying himself as a “liberal Catholic” commenting upon the just announced retirement of Pope Benedict XVI, Dionne wrote that he was consoled by the fact that this primarily conservative religious leader also had a progressive side. The Pope’s conservative side was his support of traditional marriage and other such conservative moral doctrines. His progressive side was demonstrated by proclaiming that “Christians fight poverty out of a recognition of the supreme dignity of every human being, created in God’s image and destined for eternal life.”
Now consider that statement. Dionne apparently truly believes a conservative would disagree with this statement. Like in “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”? Are conservatives really anti Declaration of Independence? Actually, many progressives think conservatives use its “life” language to oppose abortion, others think conservatives play up “liberty” too much when it comes to economics, while others say that self evident truths are passé. Whatever: conservatives are guilty of it.
One presumes Dionne is really emphasizing the “poverty” part of the Pope’s statement. Does the Washington Post star columnist know that study after study finds that conservatives contribute more funds to charity, even relative to their income, than progressives? Perhaps that does not count. Presumably fighting poverty can only be done by government, indeed national government. Do progressives really think conservatives are unchristian unless they support every Washington program to help the poor? Conservatives might point out that the General Accountability Office has found that there are already 70 bureaus in six different Federal agencies trying to feed hungry children. Are conservatives against the poor unless they ignore experience and hope the 71st program will work?
Dionne gets even more specific, noting Benedict added that Christians “work for more equitable sharing of the earth’s resources out of a belief that – as stewards of God’s creation – we have a duty to care for the weakest and most vulnerable. Christians oppose greed and exploitation…the belief in the transcendent destiny of every human being gives urgency to the task of promoting peace and justice for all.” Progressives are no doubt convinced conservatives support greed and exploitation and oppose peace and justice but that is a rather broad brush. One supposes Dionne especially focuses on the “more equitable sharing of the world’s resources” part. Certainly conservatives oppose redistribution of wealth, right? Case closed: they are unjust.
Just a moment: is government redistribution of wealth the same as a more equitable sharing? Again, the data are unambiguous; conservatives share their wealth in charitable contributions more than do progressives. So, it must be government? But government redistribution requires taking wealth from some and giving it to another. Certainly, Christians and Benedict in particular allow some of this but there are important limits. Christian social doctrine likewise recognizes property rights and limits what can be taken. More important is what several popes have declared an essential doctrine, subsidiarity, which requires that such action take place at the lowest governmental level possible, not preeminently at the national level.
It will shock our dear liberal religionists that popes have even discussed the most effective means of distributing national wealth. In Centesimus Annus Pope John Paul II (probably with the assistance of his expert in the field, the man who become his successor) suggested that free trade might be the best means to provide a more equitable sharing of world wealth. Although there are conservatives who oppose freer trade, the predominant position on the right is to be trade’s most prominent advocates. Progressives tend to keep rather quiet on free trade in order not to upset their labor union allies. Even such a progressive as Thomas Friedman considers unions the greatest obstacle to free trade and the increase of income to the poor such trade would produce.
Rather than obsess about the right, Dionne might worry about a recent trend among his allies. According to anonymous White House leakers to the media, President Obama received the precise media response he desired from his State of the Union address when the Post headline proclaimed “The State of the Union’s middle class promise.” Former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi typically incants the phrase “middle class” several dozen times in the shortest of her interviews. What happened to the words “poor” or “poverty’ on the left? It is precisely the middle class entitlements that are soaking up national resources from the poor.
Few conservative intellectuals would accuse progressives of being bad Christians for supporting the middle class over the poor, for contributing less to charity, and ignoring the failures of a regulatory state submerged in bureaucracy, red tape and duplicative programs that do not work. Would it be too much to ask the same forbearance in return from progressives? Apparently progressive intellectuals simply cannot separate means from ends or good feelings from effective action. This represents an ideological disability not proof of immorality.
Donald Devine, the editor of ConservativeBattleline On Line, was the director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management from 1981-1985 under Ronald Reagan and is Senior Scholar at The Fund for American Studies.