If We Want a Civilized Society, Charities Can't Fill the Void Left by Government

Last week, I made an online donation to the Greater Boston food bank. After doing so, I spent several minutes trying to process how I felt. I didn't feel virtuous. What I felt was intense anger.

Last week, I made an online donation to the Greater Boston food bank. After doing so, I spent several minutes trying to process how I felt. I didn't feel virtuous. What I felt was intense anger.

The donation was following the example of my friend Suzanne Fischer, who had pointed out that the government shutdown meant that WIC was suspended. If you're unfamiliar with it, WIC is more formally known as the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, and it provides supplemental food vouchers and support to nearly 8.9 million people, mostly women and children under the age of five. Without it, they're going without food and formula.

Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr is reported to have said, now famously:

I like to pay taxes. With them I buy civilization.

Taxes aren't the only way to pay for civilization, of course: community groups, charities, and churches also contribute. But I consider myself a fairly prudent consumer, and I want my money to be used well.

Even excellent charities are inefficient. Take food banks. We have a distribution system that goes from farms to warehouses to grocery stores. Food banks then set up more warehouses and pick-up sites to get sustenance out to those in need, often food that's already gone down the first chain. It's far more efficient to give people the means to use the retail distribution network than to create and have them use an alternate system.

Charity is also ad hoc: it's difficult to get help to people who need it in a systematic way that makes sure no one falls through the cracks. And charities, especially ones that do take on the challenge of large-scale issues, need to spend much of their income asking people like me to help.

We live in an enormous, connected web of systems, and some building blocks of our civilization just can't be addressed by individuals or small groups of people. Most of us flat-out don't have the expertise to deal with them. Those groceries are the end-point of a global supply chain - how do we keep our food safe? Our transportation systems span the continent - how do we get travelers where they're going, safely and on time? Epidemiologists track diseases that emerge on other continents, long before they reach our neighborhoods. The idea that we live in self-sufficient communities where we can all watch out for each other is long gone.

So, while I regularly donate to charities and I believe they play an important role in society, I don't want them in lieu of more efficient systems. I don't want to go to fundraisers to pay the medical bills of artists; I want them to have health insurance. I want to be able to go to meetings on the other side of the country and buy chicken for dinner without worrying about my safety. And I want programs like WIC to provide services that reduce the need for more expensive interventions.

Of course, when I made that donation, I wasn't just angry about systems and inefficiency. I was angry because children in my community were going to go hungry. I donated to my local food bank in a crisis, but what I really want is for no one to need to use it, ever.

I'm an immigrant, and a child of immigrants, which means that the country I've lived in has never been just an accident of birth, but the result of a conscious decision to join a community. To be part of a community is to bear some obligation towards each other, not just to live in geographic proximity and carry the same passport. I don't want to be a resident of a tiny village where everyone keeps an eye on everyone else, even if it were possible to do so and still be part of the 21st century. I want to live as part of a community of 300 million people, and I want it to be one where we take care of each other.

That's civilization worth paying for.

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