Are Bleeding-Heart Liberals Wasting Their Time and Energy?

Most left-leaning people tend not to like Libertarians all that much. Or at least the left that we live with today. The reason for this is pretty straight forward. Libertarians are people (broadly speaking) who want as limited a government as possible. They acknowledge some government is necessary–“Men are not angels,” as Madison would say–, but they would much prefer for the government to just stay out of everyone’s business.

It’s worth reinforcing the point that Libertarians are not anarchists. The majority of Libertarians consent to some vestiges of government control. Generally this is relegated to matters of security, both domestic and international. We should have a police force and a military to protect us from our neighbors, foreign and domestic. But beyond this, most Libertarians are opposed to government interference.

Liberals of any stripe will tend to disagree with this. They believe there is a role for government in education. They believe their is a role for government in facilitating the arts. They believe there is a role for government in helping lift people out of the lower classes of society. They see government as a vehicle through which tremendous good can be done for the benefit of society as a whole.

So here is my question. If you were given a million dollars with the explicit instructions to lift as many people out of abject poverty as you can, how would you do it?

Now the reason I ask this question is because I think virtually everyone agrees that suffering is bad. It may be an inherent aspect of existence (I think so), but we should still limit it to the extent that we can. Where people disagree is on how we achieve that. Libertarians would say it should be done privately, while liberals believe the government should play a massive role.

In holding this belief, whether liberals are conscious of this or not, they take a rather pessimistic view of human nature. In believing the government ought to act as a charity, two critical assumptions are made: (1) Unless people are forced to give money (taxes) to help others, they won’t do it. And (2), people who are currently suffering do not have it within themselves to do anything about their suffering. To be clear, I’m not saying these assumptions are incorrect, necessarily. Both certainly are true in some instances. But I am making note of the underlying assumptions of a more liberal worldview: that not only can we (individuals) not lift ourselves up, others aren’t willing to help us unless they are compelled to do so.

Back to my original question. You have a million dollars. You live in America. How do you maximize the number of people you help with that million dollars?

Well, I don’t know about you, but there is absolutely no way I would pour that million dollars into the government. Let’s say I spent $100,000 to run a congressional campaign. It was my first go of it, so I probably lose. But, my name recognition and connections skyrocket, so I try again. This time I spend $150,000. By some stroke of luck, I get elected. Then what? Then I have to work with 434 members who DO NOT share many of my beliefs (some who even hate me) and find a way to work with them. We pass a few bills that do some good, but are ultimately riddled with half-steps and compromises because that’s what’s necessary in government. Then the political pendulum swing back in the other direction (as it always does) and I am no longer a part of the majority. The new majority undermines the programs I helped implement, making them weak and ineffective. I am resolved to continue fighting for these programs because I truly believe they help people. So I use the rest of my money for subsequent reelection campaigns and this process goes on repeating itself until I retire.

Or, I could do absolutely nothing and simply donate the million dollars to Oxfam. That would roughly be enough to build 125 water wells in villages across the globe, thereby giving upwards of 250,000 people access to clean water for 20 years.

The point I’m trying to make here is that people keep beating their heads against a brick wall trying to make the government a piggy-bank for the poor. But the system of government in the US really isn’t designed for that. It’s designed to prevent too much power from accumulating in the hands of any one person or groups. Thus it is a slog to do anything, and it requires consensus building across a wide range of ideologies—many of which vehemently disagree with the piggy-bank approach. If your true goal is to limit the suffering in this world, to lift people from the dredges and give them new life, that’s wonderful. That’s a goal more people should aspire to. But ask yourself, truly ask yourself, if the government is the best way to maximize your impact on the world, or if perhaps you could do even more good another way.

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