Hunger and the Kindness of Strangers

Cold weather is a fact of nature during Maine winters. Unfortunately, many Maine citizens are as close to starvation as they are to freezing. Social policy could address starvation. Nonetheless, in communities as different as Bar Harbor and Newport, an alarming number of residents are sustained at best by local food pantries.

The generosity of neighbors and even strangers is commendable, but the need for these institutions invites a troubling question: Why should one's life depend upon the whims of neighbors with the power to decide who is worthy or how often food pantries can be open? In an affluent society, even the most morally reprobate should not face the threat of starvation. But even if a moral calculus is to be applied, the conventional rationales for hunger amidst plenty do not survive close scrutiny.

It has become commonplace to suggest that poverty is a consequence of personal moral failure. Work hard and you'll always be able to feed your family. Yet, as Lisa Pohlman of the Maine Center for Economic Policy has reported, the most dramatic change in poverty in Maine over the last 40 years is the number of working poor. Between 1982 and 2000, Maine lost 22 percent of manufacturing jobs paying an average weekly wage of $680. At the same time, it had a 72 percent increase in retail sales jobs paying an average wage of $323. These service sector jobs are nonunion and workers lack the market power to demand their full value.

Here on Mount Desert Island, poverty is driven even more by the rapid escalation of housing costs, one consequence of speculation in second family housing among the most affluent. That boom in turn reflects growing discretionary income in the hands of the wealthy and tax policies that enable large investments in housing.

Just as the housing and job markets become more detrimental to poor and working-class citizens, food stamps, welfare, Medicaid and housing assistance have become harder to attain. Cuts have been justified on two grounds: free markets give everyone a chance to succeed and private charity is more caring and efficient in helping those in need.

Yet the so-called free market is not God-given. It is a complex set of rules and regulations governing property and business transactions. Those rules, which treat corporations as though they were persons, grant those entities special treatment in taxation and law. Our so-called free trade treaties provide no protection for labor's right to organize but grant intellectual property in the form of patents and copyrights extensive monopoly protection. And most professionals, such as lawyers and doctors, are well shielded against foreign competition.

Nor did the modern markets emerge from nowhere. Textbooks treat market economies as though every player starts from the same idealized starting line. Balzac, though exaggerating, was on to something with his famous quip "Behind every great fortune lies a crime." Many of our early entrepreneurs and business leaders benefited from assets and resources stolen from Native Americans or from public lands, or from the exploitation of imported slaves. Once firmly established, individual and corporate fortunes persist across many generations.

Today, many of the most successful corporations still benefit from cost-plus contracts, subsidies, and low-interest loans from the government. Within our corporate order, rules are often only for the little guys. Many great fortunes continue to be built on defiance of the law, as Wal-Mart's hiring and mistreatment of both native-born and immigrant workers illustrates.

Not to worry, say market defenders. The wealthy will see that the poor do not suffer. Yet, as the University of Southern Maine 's David Wagner, author of "What's Love Got To Do With It?" points out, the kindness of strangers suffocates as often as it liberates. The wealthy disproportionately target their contributions to foundations that promote their own worldview. In addition, much charitable activity emphasizes "reform" of the poor rather than the provision of assets that would enable them to become more effective players in the modern economy. Wagner also reminds us that the wealthy contribute a far smaller proportion of their income to charity than do working-class citizens.

Conservatism in America is a cruel and utopian doctrine. Traditional European conservatism generally treated society as a hierarchical entity in which each element at least had a right to exist. This posture may not foster full the quality of political rights, but at least it encouraged noblesse to oblige not only in personal transactions but in social policy as well.

American conservatism turns everything over to the workings of the market in the faith that markets will solve all problems of equity and efficiency. Just like the commissars of the Soviet state who believe one plan can solve everything, they scorn politics and treat those who do not fit their worldview as utterly beneath contempt.