Finding the balance between a safety net and a spiderweb of corruption

Dew_and_spiderwebsAs I write this I just finished reading the Lee Benson interview of United Way’s Deborah Bayle in the Deseret News. In full disclosure, I’m not a big fan of private social service agencies that institutionalize the use of tax dollars to service our neighbors in need. Simply put, those entities really aren’t private. Furthermore, in the battle between money and mission, acceptance of government dollars naturally creates mission drift.

OK, that said, I have tremendous respect for United Way of Salt Lake, especially for my friend Bill Crim and his boss Deborah. I’m grateful United Way is here in our state, and I’m grateful good people are at its helm.

Several thoughts hit me as I read this interview. Here are a few of them.

First, as a Latter-day Saint, I have an ideal society in mind constantly – it’s called Zion. It’s an ideal. It’s not a reality. In Zion all people are of one mind and one heart and there are no poor among them, whether spiritually or temporally. Poverty relief and compassionate service for the poor are not tribal or turfy. Charitable giving and service is culturally organized – it’s in our hearts and, as a part of our souls, there is no science or management behind the organization. It’s organized but it happens organically.

This is my bias. Even as an ideal, Zion is my real-world policy model for poverty relief and lifting the poor and disadvantaged to opportunity and happiness.

Many years ago, when I began my friendship with Bill Crim, I remember admitting to him that when the private sector – people of their own free will and choice – can’t or doesn’t meet the needs of the poor, government (i.e. coercion) is a natural and expected instrument to bridge the gap, step in and do what it can to assist the poor. It doesn’t matter that government is an inefficient “servant.” It doesn’t matter that government creates entitlements that bring out the worst kinds of selfishness in recipients. It doesn’t matter that government destroys community that would otherwise occur from neighbor to neighbor. It doesn’t matter that government perpetuates dependencies intergenerationally.

None of this matters as long as there are poor among us and we’re not helping each other privately. Poor in need, in the absence of private assistance, is government indeed. I admit it. Even Friedrich Hayek understood and admitted the necessity for a government “safety net” in a free society – a free society cannot long endure rampant and widespread poverty. The people will revolt. The have-nots will take from the haves, even by force. Period.

The tricky thing in a free society caring for its poor is that even if we admit the legitimacy of the role of government in providing a safety net, we remain exposed to the temptations and realities of overreliance and imprudent dependency on the state. Maintaining a prudent balance is the role of wise and honest political and community leaders – a point that can’t be overstressed.

Our libertarian friends hate having to maintain this balance, primarily because we are hardly ever able to do it well. It’s true. Even so, the problem with the libertarian impatience is that to withdraw from meeting the constant challenge of maintaining this delicate balance is to give rise to an imbalance wherein government begins its disproportionate imposition. The more satisfying and productive effort is to stay vigilant in helping to elect wise and honest people to public office, not abandoning our neighbors in principle.

And this brings me back to United Way and private social service organizations that rely ever more on tax dollars to meet a mission. When private social service organizations rely on tax dollars to meet their missions, their missions turn into lobbying elected officials for more money. Boards of these organizations are then created on the basis of their abilities to influence elected officials, and eventually, the whole organization is money-oriented, not mission driven. Ultimately, the private sector is corrupted, and community and business leaders advance a culture of corruption and that, in turn, breeds “pay to play” politics bringing out the worst in some very good people.

Second, reliance by private social service organizations on tax dollars creates a zero-sum game within poverty relief. Tax dollars are much more finite than private dollars. More than enough money exists in the aggregate to care for our neighbors in need. Scarcity occurs when tax dollars crowd out private dollars. Tax dollars are much less sensitive to real need and much less responsive to changing priorities. Tax dollars create disincentives such as entitlements – not found with private dollars.

The result is that poverty relief becomes very turfy and oddly deferential (as if there really is honor among thieves). Even as private social service organizations fight among themselves for the favors of government to claim their portion of the tax dollar pot, these organizations often cede certain turf. Here’s what it sounds like: “I don’t think we should get involved with that project. Not only does ABC organization have a primary interest in providing that service [even if it does so ineffectively], we wouldn’t want to destabilize the existing safety net by being perceived as taking money from them.”

The changes at United Way of Salt Lake seem promising. It seems they are willing to risk certain community relationships to actually be effective in helping people. That’s no small thing. In fact, it’s big. So many private social service organizations think doing things for people is serving them. Few understand the difference between outputs and outcomes. It takes leadership and guts to focus on outcomes – not to mention risking community friendships.

Finally, the need for United Way is increasingly driven by the breakdown of the natural family. And, yet, these private social service organizations not only seem oblivious to this fact, they also seem downright offended that anyone would point out the obvious. Quite naturally these organizations attract political progressives and, with it, all sorts of progressive attitudes and ideals, especially attitudes about the modern family.

Perhaps this is why so many private social service organizations focus on outputs and not outcomes – outcomes require discriminating judgments about success and effectiveness. An intellectual defect of progressivism is its pathological egalitarianism. Not that equality isn’t desirable in principle. But when dysfunction underlies equality, dysfunction defines equality. When dysfunction defines equality, organizational objectives focus on dysfunction, not equality or even opportunity. In the name of serving the poor or single moms or the mentally ill, progressives defend underlying personal and familial problems rather than seeing those underlying problems as the real culprits of poverty and unhappiness. In other words, for progressives in these private social service organizations, equality looks like dysfunction – we can’t make discriminating judgments about the success and effectiveness of our programs because that would risk making discriminating judgments about someone’s personal success, personal effectiveness and, ultimately, personal happiness.

Meanwhile the very causes of human happiness are demonized and vilified because they require function not dysfunction. They require admission that some human behaviors, structures and institutions are better for us than others. Want to eliminate poverty to the greatest extent possible? Support less government, lower taxes, freer markets and, more than any of those, support the natural family – encourage a man and a woman to marry, have children and stay married. That’s the indisputable recipe for prosperity. But these truths eat at the progressive core.

United Way of Salt Lake deserves kudos for focusing on outcomes in the lives of our struggling neighbors. But progressive ideology will keep them from victory. Sad.

One of the most frustrating aspects of my time at Sutherland Institute has been watching so many talented people and community leaders, spending so much money, on programs and projects less than optimal in achieving their stated objectives in serving Utah’s poor and needy. These friends look me in the eye and say things like, “Well, not everybody is like you. Not everyone has been as fortunate. Not everyone has the same opportunities.” The truth is that the only differences between most people are the choices they make, the self-discipline they exercise, the commitments they keep and the sacrifices for others they’re willing to make.

True, some people are handicapped, physically and/or emotionally. Our hearts and efforts go out to them. But most people aren’t, and it does them little good for us to coddle their dysfunctions or worse. Community leadership requires adopting policies, programs and projects based on human reality, not fiction. Human reality is that happiness and prosperity flourish in very specific conditions, and we’re only harming our struggling neighbors further by not encouraging them to aspire to and acquire those specific conditions.

God bless United Way of Salt Lake and every other private social service organization in Utah. God bless them with the courage to do the right things for the right reasons in the right ways. God bless them to see that the real objective of compassionate service isn’t simply temporal relief. The real objective of all we do should be human happiness.

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