Monday, September 17, 2007

The Christian Commonwealth

A regular reader expressed surprise at a recent posting by me that he read as supporting increased government spending--and he thought that this was the first time that I had ever done that.

First of all, I haven't been a reflexive anti-government spending person in many years. I supported the War on Terror--which has turned out to be really, really expensive (and might have been close to this expensive even if Bush had done it right). I have long supported increased government spending on basic research in the area of health, and the sciences. This doesn't mean that every grant makes sense--a lot of them don't--but some of the research that the government funds leads to basic understanding of mental illness, which is one of my pet concerns.

Secondly, the point of that posting was that if the government decides to increase spending to provide health insurance for the uninsured, there are smarter, more efficient ways to do it, and less smart, less efficient ways to do it. I'm a bit weird about this, but I generally think that if we decide we are going to do step X, let's find a cheaper, more efficient way to do step X.

Thirdly, I have for several years pointed out that part of the American tradition from the very beginning has been that this is a Christian commonwealth. There is a moral obligation that has been part of English law since at least the Elizabethan Poor Laws to provide at least some minimal level of assistance to those who are incapable of doing so themselves. As Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England points out:
Life is the immediate gift of God, a right inherent by nature in every individual; and it begins in contemplation of law as soon as an infant is able to stir in the mother’s womb....

The law not only regards life and member, and protects every man in the enjoyment of them, but also furnishes him with every thing necessary for their support. For there is no man so indigent or wretched, but he may demand a supply sufficient for all the necessities of life, from the more opulent part of the community, by means of several statutes enacted for the relief of the poor, of which in their proper places.
That doesn't mean that every poor person has a right to cable TV, a semi-private hospital room, a car, and steak every night. It also doesn't mean that those who can work, but won't, have a right to support.

There can be legitimate argument about what the right level of support is. Liberals tend to be a lot more magnanimous than conservatives about what "the necessities of life" include. There can also be legitimate argument about whether a particular mechanism is the right method of providing that support. Some methods are more efficient than others; some methods introduce socially destructive side effects, as the destruction of black inner city civilization caused by the Great Society demonstrates. But this is a Christian Commonwealth. Left-wing politicians like to point that out when pushing for social spending, but like to forget about it when it comes time to march in the Gay Pride Parade. Conservatives sometimes forget this when the issue of social welfare comes up. Libertarians, at least, are consistent: they don't acknowledge any governmental obligation on either count--and they aren't going to be winning any national elections in the near future, either.

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