Sunday, November 7, 2010

Misguided Compassion Hurts the Poor

So says Theodore Dalrymple in an excellent article from the Spring 2010 City Journal. Dalrymple shows remarkable insight he begins his essay with the following:
To sympathize with those who are less fortunate is honorable and decent. A man able to commiserate only with himself would surely be neither admirable nor attractive. But every virtue can become deformed by excess, insincerity, or loose thinking into an opposing vice. Sympathy, when excessive, moves toward sentimental condescension and eventually disdain; when insincere, it becomes unctuously hypocritical; and when associated with loose thinking, it is a bad guide to policy and frequently has disastrous results. It is possible, of course, to combine all three errors.
Dalrymple then proceeds to provide historical episodes from his own personal experience while living in the Gilbert Islands, Tanzania, and England to illustrate the negative psychological, moral, and cultural effects of the kind of income distribution that is commonplace in the welfare state.

Dalrymple's essay brought to mind Chapter 2 in Herbert Schlossberg's magnificent Idols for Destruction: The Conflict of Christian Faith and Culture. Early in this chapter, entitled "Idols of Humanity," Schlossberg, like Dalrymple after him, calls our attention to how humanism so quickly moves from sympathy to sentimentalism with devastating consequences. Scholssberg observes:
Humanism raises sentiment to a level of command that is wholly inappropriate to it nature. In so doing, it bases its ethical structure on sentimentality, which is the doctrine of the primacy of sentiment, its elevation into a principle of truth. Humanism thrives on sentimentality because few religions are more dishonest in their doctrinal expressions. Unable to withstand dispassionate analysis, which would reveal its lack of foundation, it stresses feeling rather than thought. That is what makes sentimentality so vicious. People can get good feelings from almost anything; "sadism" refers to a philosophy that elevates feeling into a moral principle.
After over forty-five pages of expert analysis, including that of the problem of poverty and the consequences of attempted statist solutions motivated from sentimentality, Schlossberg concludes that, instead of bringing freedom, humanism breeds tyranny.
The better educated he is, the more likely the humanist is to believe that people are like machines and need to be programmed, and the more likely he is to believe that he should be one of the programmers. Given their premises, the logic of their position is invincible: Gods without power and wealth are an absurd contradiction.

Humanitarianism is saviorhood, and ethic perfectly suited to the theology that divinizes man. But the theology that divisnizes man, it turns out, only divinizes some men. The objects of humanitarian concern becomes less than men, so that the humanitarian can exercise the prerogatives of a god.

That god that failed is man.
The moral of the story is that, if we truly want to help people who are poor, we must treat them as people, not things are as mere atoms in an abstract blob we call humanity. And we must do so accepting the whole counsel of Scripture. We must recognize that some people are poor because of their own actions, while some are because of the actions of others. We must also recognize that it is easy for poverty assistance to breed the negative social consequences of dependency and sloth.

We must also recognize that the Scriptures do not allow for engaging in theft in the name of caring for the poor. We cannot rob our neighbor to give to the poor. Neither can we hire elected officials and their bureaucratic friends to do so.True charity begins with our sharing our own time, money and selves with those in need.

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