As the August 2nd deadline to raise the debt ceiling comes closer everyday and as our politicians squabble on entitlement reform, its important to remember that there was a time in America when our government was not involved in running entitlement programs. Charity used to be a private enterprise. However, all of that changed when some religious organizations lobbied for government intervention:
The American experiment sought to wed the idea of freedom and virtue without the need or desire for a strong government to administer the details of life for every citizen. The American idea was an elimination of restraint by the government to be replaced by the constraint of virtue taught by institutions in society other than the government. The home, the church, the school and other voluntary associations were to be the primary relationship of life through which order and honesty were maintained.The Great Depression, with its widespread economic emergencies, tested this idea and caused many to desire a government-run economy where predictability and security would be normal because most (if not all) personal and business decisions would largely be regulated by a governmental bureaucracy. New Deal legislation brought with it price controls on food, government insurance, monetary subsidies for bad years on the farm or in business, tight regulation on industry, new and expensive regulations for business and high tax rates.Immediately following Roosevelt's speech in San Francisco, many theological journals and Christian denominations used the exact phrases of the soon-to-be president in their publications. Many discarded traditional interpretations of key Scripture texts to support a new political theology which mirrored Roosevelt's revolutionary New Deal. The close connections were not noticed at first, but after the laws were passed, it clearly was seen that without the church, much of the legislation could not have passed Congress. The president designed the policies, the church applied the pressure and the nation inherited the consequences.
The fact that many pastors and religious institutions encouraged the government to take over their role in providing charity has not come without terrible consequences for religious institutions:
What is disturbing when reviewing the history of this time is how many Christian ministers defended the actions of government as fulfilling Holy Scripture's mandates to care for the poor, provide for parents in their old age and give to those who ask of you.With this shift of thinking, the state began to function in roles once reserved for the church—to the detriment of any who would question the legitimacy of the legislation on theological grounds. The same reception awaits those in the modern day who seek to resist any "progressive" social policy in any way for fear that they will be branded as uncaring or un-Christian in their ideas.Has government power expanded to such a degree that the church now has no voice at all in the public square? Perhaps, but the modern era of public policy reveals just how much the government has gained and how much the church has lost.
Its worth noting that the consequences of churches abandoning their role in providing charity are not limited to religious and private institutions. It has come at a huge cost to the American people. Look at the chart below:
As you can see from the chart above, the explosive growth of spending on entitlement programs are startling. However, what's even more startling is the future of these entitlement programs:
What private institutions have done is lay a financial burden on the American people that grows larger and larger until it becomes financially unsustainable. As you can see by these graphs above, there is no dispute that entitlement programs are the single largest driver of our nation's deficit.
The reason why the costs of entitlements have sky rocketed is because these progressive and liberal churches weren't content with just getting social security into law in the 1930s. As time marched on into the 60's and 70s, many churches pressed for government intervention in medical care, housing, and education. As a result, our government had spend to spend more of our tax payer money as more entitlement programs were being created.
These churches promoted a culture of dependency on government rather than on religion. Everyone knows that dependencies develop quickly. If you want to kill a bad entitlement, kill it quickly before expectations calcify. However, thanks to private institutions like churches and private insurance companies in the 1930s, they didn't work hard to kill these entitlement programs in its infancy but labored diligently to ensure that its existence would calcify into a permanent fixture in American government.
Yet, what is so fascinating about entitlement programs is that they are considered mandatory spending programs even though it is really a discretionary program:
People are often shocked to learn that Social Security and Medicare are not “entitlements” at all. Congress could pass a law stopping all Social Security and Medicare payments tomorrow, and no citizen would have a legal claim against the government based on how much payroll tax he or she had paid into the so-called “Trust Fund.” Because Medicaid is financed by general tax revenue, its constitutionality under the general-welfare clause is even more secure, according to current legal reasoning.
Given that America's dependency on these entitlement programs have calcified, the idea of government stepping away from the enterprise of helping others isn't politically feasible or acceptable. As a result, entitlement reform is not only necessary but should be easy to do. However, the reason why they've become the third rail of American politics is that politicians are afraid to make the crucial and necessary reforms to entitlement programs for fear of provoking the wrath of those who rely completely or partially on these programs.
At some point, we have to realize that these programs are not mandatory and that spending doesn't have to be on autopilot. Politicians and citizens alike will realize that the third rail of American politics was as only as dangerous as we believed it to be. As a result, the biggest reform we will have to make is not with the entitlement programs themselves but in changing the hearts and minds of the American people.
That means we need to educate people about the real history of charity in America. I highly recommend two books that look at what America was like before the government became involved in entitlement programs. Those books are The Charity Organization Movement in the United States; A Study In America Philanthropy and The Tragedy of American Compassion.
It also means we need to promote a culture of independence not dependence. That means we need to teach self-reliance, independence and accountability at home, in churches and in school. The more people learn that they can make their own success and that if they ever fall on hard times, they rely on individuals and private institutions who will work to ensure that they get back on their feet again.
We also need to push for a greater role in private institutions in helping people out and reduce, but not eliminate, the government's role in helping people. There was a time when private corporations and religious institutions provided social security, rent assistance and medical assistance and that time needs to come back again.
People don't mind helping the poor, the elderly, the sick and the disadvantaged and they will continue to help people long into the future. The problem is that one institution is not suited or capable of helping people while the other institution is. Governments cannot provide that kind of service at the same quality or cost that private institutions can.
Governments can still play a role in helping people but its role must be minimal. The government can't take care of everyone which it has promised with the passage of all these entitlement programs. If we can make entitlement reforms, reduce the government's role in helping people while increasing the role of private institutions in helping people and reintroduce the ideas of self reliance and accountability, our national deficit would be reduced, if not, eliminated completely.