I am challenged by the virtue of compassion. My God is a God of compassion. Salvation is the gift of a compassionate God. Jesus taught us to be compassionate. St. Paul urges us to be clothed with compassion (Colossians 3:12). But I question whom to feel sorry for, why to feel sorry for them, and how to act on my compassionate feelings. I cannot feel sorry for everyone, wherever they are, for there are so many of them who need compassion. Where do I draw the line? Who is my responsibility?
William Voegeli has written a very provocative book on this subject. The Pity Party: A Mean-Spirited Diatribe Against Liberal Compassion (Broadside Books, HarperCollins, 2014) argues that compassion defines and animates liberalism which is institutionalized in the modern Democratic Party. The progressive liberal political agenda appeals to compassion and empathy. Its mission is to alleviate the needs of all humans everywhere. But the world abounds in suffering situations. You can’t solve all problems so who gets to the front of the line? Margaret Thatcher warned that socialists run out of other people’s money to fund their priorities. An example of this is to be found in the debate over immigration.
How do we let in the people we want to let in and keep out the people we have every right to keep out? Is immigration into the USA a sacred civil right possessed by 7 billion foreigners? Do we make it easier for illegal immigrants to find and keep jobs and raise wages for unskilled work which lures even more aliens and undercuts American jobs and living standards and adds to our social problems? In the past we required assimilation, which meant learning English and participating fully in society as Americans, not remaining solely in an ethnic group. Do we encourage immigration at the expense of other nations? Is it compassionate to denude other nations of the skilled personnel they need. David Goodhart points out that the nation of Malawi has lost more than half of its nursing staff to emigration over recent years, leaving just 336 nurses to serve a population of 12 million. Excluding Nigeria and South Africa, the average country in sub-Saharan Africa had 6.2 doctors per 100,000 of population in 2004. This compares with 166 in the UK, yet about 31% of doctors practising in the UK come from overseas, many from developing countries. (Why the Left is Wrong about Immigration)
The debate over taxes hinges on the presupposition that all government programs need more money in order to do more good for those who need them. To oppose raising taxes is to oppose doing good. The politics of kindness is an attempt, often very effective, to put conservatives on the defensive at the outset of every policy debate. For the better part of a century the political reality has been that the more the government spends on social welfare programs, the more liberals insist it needs to spend. Complacency about whether social welfare spending is doing any good for the people it is supposed to be helping is completely consistent with liberal compassion, as such questions would only complicate the main focus, the empathizer’s capacity to feel like a good person. Redistribution of income to achieve greater equality is a chimera for there will always be achievers who will prosper. To penalize such achievers by higher taxes discourages the highly motivated. At what point is the safety net of social welfare programs sufficient to take care of the genuinely needy without encouraging dependency and funding permanent unemployment?
The liberal project is to make philanthropy and charity unnecessary. Social and economic justice comes through government action funded by taxes rather voluntary giving. High taxes weaken charitable giving, and the ability of families to take care of their own. Family obligations are outsourced to state-supported caregivers. The national family becomes more important and at the expense of church communities and our immediate and extended families. But who are more important to us. Our own children matter more to us than others. We are called to love what is near and similar to us than what is remote and strange.
I want to be compassionate and pray that I will indeed respond generously to the genuine needs of those nearest to me. But I resent the politicians deciding for me what their pound of flesh will be so that they can fund their pet projects and reward their constituencies. What right have they to take away my responsibility for stewardship and to create so many wasteful and counter-productive attempts to build a utopian society?
I am still working on this subject and know that good Christian people may differ with me and take the opposite point of view. However I do question those Christian leaders who claim that the teaching of Jesus promotes the welfare state as the embodiment of the Christian command to “love thy neighbor”. Jesus said that his kingdom was not of this world (John 18:36). All of us have to account before God for the use of the riches he has given us. While the civil authorities do have the right to impose taxes, and we to pay them, they too are accountable for how they use them and how onerous they are. In a democracy we can hold accountable those who govern for their philosophy of taxation and their fair administration of the laws.