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Social Responsibility

In December of 2005, Ellen Goodman wrote a column for the Boston Globe in which she pondered the general passivity and ignorance with which most of us, generous as we may be, approach our charitable giving. Her experience — and mine is similar — is that, upon reflection, we realize we actually know very little about many of the charities to which we direct our money. We pledge to the walk for Breast Cancer, but do we know how much of the money ends up actually used for research and whether that research is useful? The state Firefighters Association or the Association of Chiefs of Police asks for $25 and we think firefighters and policemen risk their lives for us and deserve our support — but do most of us have any idea how the money we give actually benefits firefighters or policemen? Even the large and well-known charities like the United Way or the Red Cross or our favorite church don’t always use their resources in ways we might expect or approve of.

The punch-line of Ms. Goodman’s column was a challenge to her readers to be less careless with their giving, to view it not merely as an act of compassion but as an act of social activism, to put some effort into envisioning what they want society to look like and to direct their resources with care into those organizations that can make the most progress toward achieving that vision.

And almost as an afterthought — but with the definite feeling that everything beforehand was leading up to this point — she challenged us to be equally discriminating in controlling the use of our tax dollars — in other words, to vote scrupulously for those who would use the government to further our own particular social vision.

Given the general sense in most of Ms. Goodman’s writings that almost any problem is best solved by some government program or regulation, I found an irony in her advocacy of individualized moral responsibility that I doubt she or many of her readers could see. I wrote this to try to point out that irony, but for some reason I don’t remember (but that probably involved some kind of holiday crisis) I never submitted it for publication. So here it is now, a year later but I believe still relevant.

16 December 2005

Ellen Goodman makes a fine point (Feeling Charitable, 16 Dec 2005) that people ought to be more scrupulous about their urges to charity. If charitable giving is morally important, then we have a moral duty to see that our giving is not only well-intentioned but well-used. We should think about what we want our giving to achieve and ensure that the causes to which we donate are the worthiest we can find; and we should scrutinize those who solicit our contributions on behalf of such causes to ensure that they use those contributions to best effect.

In fact we could extend that principle beyond charitable giving to all other aspects of our economic lives. Ms. Goodman says of charity that “…the one voluntary economic decision we make in everyday life offers a chance to put our voice and our values, our money and our morals, in the same place.”  But charity is not the only voluntary economic decision we make in everyday life. All our economic decisions reflect choices about what is more and less important to us: is it better to work overtime to provide more disposable income for our families or to spend more time with our families; is the larger cost of a bigger house or apartment a good trade for the sacrifice of other amenities it requires; is a ballet or a book or a movie or a football game the better use of entertainment dollars; is the environmental benefit of an electric vehicle worth the cost in both money and convenience; should I buy the less expensive product from the company that exploits its workers, thus improving my family’s standard of living, or the more expensive product from the company that practices social conscience — and which course actually does more good for those exploited workers, the one that provides better pay for those employed or the one that provides for broader employment?  As with charitable giving, it is precisely the idiosyncratic nature of such decisions that gives them individual moral significance.

Ms. Goodman’s is a message of personal engagement. But I wonder whether she can see the irony in the contrast between that message — that we ought to take personal responsibility for the effects of our economic actions — and the final sentence of her column, which implies we should take as much responsibility for how our government spends our tax dollars. I wonder if she can see the irony between that message and much of her other writing?

For the message of taking personal responsibility is the heart of the traditional conservative critique of government and the heart of the conservative preference for private over governmental activities. Notwithstanding the popular mythologies of “Democratic Accountability“, under the best of circumstances, our control as individual citizens over the actions of our government is diffuse and indirect; under the worst circumstances, it is all but nonexistent. In the absence of large-scale corruption, conflicts of interest, and bureaucratic inertia, democratic government may reflect the general moral consensus of society as a whole; but, even then, it can never reflect all the subtleties of an individual moral outlook. There is probably no one in America, now or in any earlier golden age, who can say that all their tax dollars are wisely or even agreeably spent. Even good government is, by nature, a compromise.

If you really believe in ensuring your economic activities, including charitable giving, reflect your individual moral values and your individual social vision and your individual voice, you would be wise to remove as much of that economic activity as possible from the control of others who might see the world differently — to remove as much of that economic activity as possible from the control of any communal agent, including and especially from the control of government.

(C) Copyright 2005, 2006, Augustus P. Lowell

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