Firing up a fizzle?

The folks in Washington deserve a little more time

Issue: "Hail to the Fox," Sept. 15, 2001

Faith-based initiative faces a fizzle." That was the headline over a Newhouse News Service syndicated column last weekend. The story reminded us of what we knew all along: It's a tricky thing for government to do what God ultimately best equipped less cumbersome agencies to accomplish.

Compassion doesn't come naturally. Not even for us fallen humans as individuals-but even less so for the big organizations and bureaucracies we fallen humans form.

I've argued here before that compassion that is not costly to its giver is ultimately no compassion at all. Love that does not lose something for its donor is not the deepest kind of love. The implication, of course, is that it's all but impossible for a government to be compassionate. Those truths, rooted in the Scripture, also have much to do with the fact that big government can never adequately perform some of the functions in life we have come to expect from it in modern society.

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Take three examples I've mentioned here before: education, medical care, and elder care. If anything should be apparent, it is that those three needs in life ought to be swathed in all the wrappings of intimacy we can muster. Simply to ask then whether big government can provide such intimacy is almost to provide the answer.

A "loving government" isn't just an oxymoron. It's something hard to come by just by its very nature. A government has nothing of its own to give. Everything it has it gets from others-and that by force of law. So there is no way that it, as government, can sacrifice.

Parents can sacrifice. They can sit up and rock an infant when they'd rather sleep. They can skip a vacation trip to pay for braces. They can work an extra job to help make college possible.

Teachers can sacrifice. They can stay with you after school to help with long division. They can work all day Saturday on a class fundraiser. They can explain things, a little, when your girlfriend breaks up with you.

Doctors and nurses can sacrifice. They can meet you at 1 a.m. to stitch a lacerated chin. Your pediatrician can hang a sign on his office door that says "GONE TO ECUADOR TO HELP THE CHILDREN THERE" (as ours used to do once a year or so), and leave a profound message with your own children.

Even families can sacrifice. They can double up in their own rooms to free one for Grandpa who just had a stroke and isn't his old self but would die an early death if put in a nursing home. They can adjust their daily schedules to make loving room for a sometimes hard-to-understand oldster.

But governments can't sacrifice. All governments can ever do is fake their compassion-because the compassion of a big government costs it nothing at all. Over the next few months, Congress-in the name of compassion-will pretend it is really concerned with the needs of many Americans. Yet it will do so only by spending the money contributed by taxpayers. There's no pain for the people of Congress in all their do-goodism. The main thing such a system has in common with compassion is that the word cynicism also starts with the letter c.

But there's little point in beating up on government for failing to accomplish what by its very nature it's not equipped to do. Instead, we desperately need to get busy doing those things ourselves-and encourage government to do the things it is capable of doing in encouraging such private charitable activity. If the God-intended model is for persons, not super agencies, to wrap their arms around little children and patients and aging parents, government can use tax structures and other incentives to foster such personal and small-group models.

So watch out also for two altogether inappropriate responses to what has just happened to the Bush administration's stalled faith-based initiatives:

The first inappropriate response is the one already being suggested by traditionalists and big-government liberals. "See," they are already jeering, "we told you in advance that these cockeyed proposals wouldn't work." The implication is that only a quick return to the tired direct welfare patterns of the past will work. By their standards, liberals get years and years to perfect their programs. Conservatives get about six months. But this is a good time to stay the course, and to insist that John DiIulio's early return to Philadelphia is not by itself a reason to throw in the towel for "compassionate conservatism."

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