- - Thursday, December 26, 2019

From church attendance to food drives, the holidays are an annual reminder that virtues like charity and volunteerism are still present in American society — as it has been for centuries. Traveling the country in the 19th century, the French historian Alexis de Tocqueville famously noted in “Democracy in America” that charitable virtues were uniquely present in America as a consequence of a strong civil society — not a strong central government.

That’s certainly not what we hear from the Democrats these days, but it’s the truth.

Progressives believe in “compassionate” policy prescriptions, which involve large tax increases and an expansion of government services. Conservatives don’t buy it — for good reason. Instead, we hold that healthy mediating institutions are what’s necessary to foster economic mobility for everyone. In trying to achieve laudable goals like reducing poverty or improving economic conditions, overreaching progressive policies corrode the very mediating institutions that would help them achieve their ends.

Families, churches, charities and other voluntary associations help form a safety net for people who need help, operating as a sorely-needed buffer between individuals and their government. 

What we want for poor people is to give them high income mobility, but that always coincides with high levels of social capital. Utah, for instance, topped the nation in income mobility among lower-income children, and it’s certainly no bastion of economic progressivism.

It should come as no surprise that Utah also has the highest level of social capital among any state in America, according to a study led by the Joint Economic Committee. That’s in part because the Mormon church plays a very active role in strengthening the safety net. 

An underappreciated part of economist Oren Cass’ book, “The Once and Future Worker,” is his juxtaposition of outcomes from a private charity (Catholic Charities of Fort Worth) with those of our present welfare state. CCFW constructs individually-tailored plans with the objective of helping people become self-sufficient. More importantly, the voluntary nature of the relationship between organizations like CCFW and their beneficiaries fosters a sense of gratitude and community, rather than entitlement. 

Mr. Cass explains that government interventions, by contrast, are often a barrier to such growth. As someone on welfare accrues more wealth, their welfare benefits start to shrink — disincentivizing self-betterment. As a result, the effective marginal tax rates for welfare recipients who take jobs can be as high as 80 percent.

In Seattle, workers actually requested fewer hours in order to maintain their eligibility for subsidized housing. Rather than lift people out of poverty, the structure of our present welfare system entraps them in poverty. How is that compassionate?

Conservatives realize that such programs shift the onus of providing assistance off of the shoulders of families, friends, churches, charities and even local governments. Over time, expectations of these institutions and the government will change. Rather than help coming to the needy as a result of real relationships, now it’s coming from some distant, bureaucratic entity.

And with an ever-expanding safety net that people grow accustomed to, mediating institutions eventually begin to hollow out. This is how communities collapse. According to the Joint Economic Committee, the share of individual charitable contributions has decreased from 83 percent to 68 percent since 1973. This means that, despite indisputable economic growth since 1978, fewer Americans are reinvesting in their communities in the form of charity. 

Since Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, the federal government has spent nearly $22 trillion eradicating poverty, and, yet, poverty rates have not appreciably declined. Federal outlays as a percentage of GDP has reached nearly 20 percent of total GDP and continues to steadily rise. The overwhelming majority of these mandatory and bloated expenses, unsurprisingly, are the big three entitlements: Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.

As a result, the most precious portions of American life are dissipating. Prior to Social Security, parents looked to children as the main provider of assistance once they became older. But for years now, Social Security would fund retirement for the rest of society. This altered the cultural dynamics — and may help explain the steadily dropping birth rates since the 1960s. 

Opposition to economic progressivism does not come from callousness, as many in the commentariat would like you to believe. Conservatives simply recognize the importance of letting our society take care of itself, while fostering communities, families and charities along the way. In other words, conservatism is really just compassion’s last hope.

• Ethan Lamb (@realethanlamb) is a Young Voices contributor and a law student at Georgetown University. 

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