High waves this week on The Atlantic’s website: Writer Mike Konczal has an article headlined, “The Conservative Myth of a Social Safety Net Built on Charity,” which purports to debunk the myth: “The right yearns for an era when churches and local organizations took care of society’s weakest—an era that never existed and can’t exist today.”
Well. I’m glad that Konczal says the book I wrote 24 years ago, The Tragedy of American Compassion, still provides the historical basis for the conservative approach to helping the poor. Sadly, some conservatives have returned to the 1970s and ’80s rhetoric about welfare cheaters, as if the problem with government’s war on poverty lay with poor people breaking the rules. No, the major problem is that we have not been compassionate to weary individuals. Instead of giving them a temporary resting place and then challenging them to leave poverty behind, we’ve created incentives for them to give up.
Konczal quotes a variety of liberal activists and academics (Michael Katz, Theda Skocpol, etc.) in his attempt to show that the alternative history I provided in Tragedy is mythical. When I started my research in 1989, I sat in a Library of Congress reading room and filled out slips requesting pages to bring me books from the stacks, and learned from those secondary sources what Konczal relates. It wasn’t until I got a stacks pass and read the primary sources, particularly 19th century reports and journalistic investigations, sometimes literally blowing dust off the documents, that I learned the reality of the era in which churches and local organizations helped many of “society’s weakest” to develop some muscles.
I don’t blame Konczal for echoing the left’s activists and academics, and he does seem to have scanned David Beito’s good work on healthcare a century ago, but I’d challenge him to go into the stacks and read primary sources. He’d then either have to say that our compassionate predecessors were lying and pretending, or revise his thesis that their era “never existed.” We could also debate the present: Konczal asserts that making SNAP [food stamps] a state-level program would have harmed the poor, but I’d suggest that SNAP’s aggressive recruiting has harmfully brought into the welfare system several million people who could be making it on their own.
Neither I nor most other conservatives I know plan to eliminate all governmental anti-poverty programs. Konczal has set up a straw man. But his article does point to a fundamental difference between liberals and compassionate conservatives. He says the “public social insurance state … establishes a baseline of equality and solidarity among all citizens,” and charity can then plug those gaps that exist. I’d like us to look first to charity and private enterprise, then—when gaps emerge—to local and state government. Only if local approaches prove inadequate should we look to Washington.