Tuesday, January 31, 2012

feed the birds

I've been having a disagreement with a friend of a friend on the role of government and at 1 point he said, "The government wasn't designed to be a charity Bob. If I want my money to help people with disabilities or feed the hungry or provide funds to people who need it, I'll donate my money to those people. And what people don't realize is that when you subsidize things, the prices go up. I.e. health insurance, expanding the money supply. How about drug testing people before they can receive a welfare check?"

well, the drug-testing question I answered quickly. but the rest of what he said left me thinking about what charity is all about. as I quickly explained to him, he might be willing to give his money to those worthy groups (although almost anyone who makes this argument seems to hold that "if" in abeyance so that he doesn't actually have to do it, making it more capriciousness than responsibility), but most people aren't, and it's an obligation of government to provide for the people who aren't covered by other people's charity. charities are designed to provide only for a small group of people--those who apply to it--and they tend to be people who need it but only in the short run. what about those people who need it for the rest of their lives? and what about those people who aren't very pretty charity cases: addicts, the mentally ill, criminals? these are members of our society as much as they're members of our families, and just like in families, many of them are shunted off for someone else to deal with or to sink or swim on their own. it's a rare family that doesn't have at least 1 member of each of those categories.

in the midst of all this I fed the birds. which provided my answer. I've written before about the responsibility I feel to help trapped birds and I reflected that when I do that, or put out seed and corn for them, I'm not only doing it for the songbirds or the chickadees which are cute and provide aural and visual pleasure. I put it out too for the jays and the grebes and the crows and the countless noisy, ugly birds that crowd around and gulp it down and fly off somewhere else. I can't discriminate, only letting some eat and others not. I put the food out and they come by and eat and when it's gone I put out more.

a better example may be the rabbits and mice I put cracked corn and peanuts and sunflower seeds for. they are actually a hassle in the spring and summer in my gardens and I might argue myself happy if they pulled up stakes and cleared off. but then they're someone else's issue, and besides, I like the sight of rabbits early in the morning eating on the deck. I'd feel as if some aspect of my life were missing if they weren't here, something inarticulate and inexpressive. I can't explain what they add to my life but I can say I would feel a void in their absence. I can't let them starve when it's in my power to help them. I don't feel a responsibility to answer to an outside power but if I did I would have a hard time justifying allowing that to happen.

government is in the same position. its responsibility is to all the birds and the critters, metaphorically speaking, not just the "deserving" 1s that others might care for. its role is to collect monies to distribute to people who will otherwise die. if the cost of other things goes up in relation to that (a tenuous connection that requires a lot of givens, but I'll pass on arguing the point), then that's the price we--by which I mean all of us, even those to whom the monies go; most people tend to forget they don't suddenly pay less than anyone else, it's just that we help to subsidize their share--must be willing to pay. history shows private charities can't help everyone, and sometimes they only help 1 or 2 people, usually those setting up the charity. if there is a single good trope to religions it is this: that most of them make an obligation on the part of those who have benefitted from society to help those in worse straits. distribution is a necessary government action.

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