Regarding the great tax-and-spend battles presently pushing the nation ever closer toward the dreaded fiscal cliff, the right argues that the economy will perform better if money is controlled by those who earn it while the left wants to government to make better, more generous decisions on how to invest that money. Despite abundant evidence to the contrary from the failed welfare states of Western Europe, liberals maintain unwavering devotion to the notion that taking funds out of the private sector will miraculously generate more private-sector economic growth. Republicans trust the private decisions of prosperous people to make the best use of the money that those citizens have generated; Democrats rely on the superior wisdom and broader perspective of a larger, more activist government to distribute rewards and plan for the future in a complex economy.
In selecting strategies for helping the poor and uplifting the downtrodden, the opposed approaches of left and right offer an especially sharp contrast. According to Arthur Brooks’s important book Who Really Cares and many other studies, conservatives at every income level provide disproportionate support for private charities. On my radio show, we spent the holiday season raising nearly $50,000 for the Salvation Army with its focus on rescuing substance abusers, the homeless, and disaster victims from their miserable circumstances. Liberals, on the other hand, consider such private efforts insufficient and demand governmental initiatives and interventions to supplement the private armies of compassion.
This raises an uncomfortable question for true believers of the left: if organizations like the Salvation Army have indeed done a phenomenal job over many decades in turning lives around and bringing hope to the hopeless, why wouldn’t government want to invest its resources in supporting these operations rather than launching their own bureaucratic efforts? If private charities aren’t large enough at the moment to cope with the epic dimensions of poverty-related problems, wouldn’t government funding to expand these proven organizations provide a better investment—reaching more people at lower cost—than any costly federal start-up?
The contemptuous refusal even to consider such an approach stems from two sources: a liberal belief in totally restructuring a broken society rather than merely repairing the broken lives of individuals, and the related belief in the healing, transformative power of top-down, government-instituted change.
There’s also the inevitable tendency of any fanatical faith to despise and distrust all religious alternatives: liberalism can be a jealous god. Most progressives would therefore prefer to commit trillions to purely secular (and mostly dubious) federal and state antipoverty efforts rather than spending less money for more results if those investments involved proven charities with religious agendas.
The left’s contempt for religious conservatives stems in part from the false assumption that people of faith place irrational reliance on the role of God in solving all the world’s problems. Occasional comments by Christian right-wingers—like the rightly derided suggestion that the Newtown massacre resulted from an absence of prayer in public schools—give some credence to this unflattering caricature.
But mainstream conservatism has never denied the importance of human effort or governmental leadership in addressing dire circumstances or everyday difficulties: after all, Republican heroes of history from Lincoln to Reagan have been powerful presidents, not merely passive and prayerful observers. Yes, most religious conservatives hope for divine favor for the land they love but simultaneously embrace the old saw, “God helps those who help themselves.”
Liberals, on the other hand, place their confidence in the notion that “Government helps those who can’t help themselves”—a proposition that’s questionable in both its components. First, it’s wrong and destructive to believe that any America is truly helpless and second, it’s arguable whether government reliably helps more than it hurts when it expands its power into our daily lives.
Fair-minded people of all perspectives should agree that any form of uncompromising, unquestioned, illogical faith can poison public discourse and derail important debates. There’s no effective rejoinder to the declaration that “God tells me that that I’m right and I refuse to consider other arguments.”
There is similarly no easy response to the insistence that “I know that government can fix this problem and don’t confuse me with evidence to the contrary.”
In the wake of Obama’s reelection, unreasoning reliance on federal power distorts our politics far more destructively than simple-minded faith in God. At the moment, big-government fundamentalism poses more of a threat to the republic than religious absolutism.
Editor's note: this column originally appeared in the Daily Beast.