Doing Good through Government

Government programs are often one of the most effective ways that we express caring and compassion toward our fellow human beings.

In America, we often think of being moral and doing "good works" as things we do in our private lives. For example, when we think of institutions that are doing good works, we tend to think of organizations like churches and charities that operate privately. Giving blood or volunteering at our local soup kitchen are the kinds of things that come to mind when we want to help others in our community—when we want to be responsible and moral people.

But if you really think about it, the institutions that do the most "good works" in our society are not churches or charities; they are our local, state, and federal governments. These governments do an enormous amount to feed the hungry, heal the sick, take care of the old, protect the young, and so on. In fact the good created by these governments far exceeds all the good accomplished by churches and charities in our society. When we think about some of the greatest moral achievements in our history, it is often the American people acting through their government that brought them about. It is government that abolished slavery and ended child labor. It is government that has saved millions of lives through public health programs to eradicate diseases. It is government that has drastically reduced poverty among the elderly. It is the government that is saving us all from the widespread suffering and despair caused by economic depressions.

On any measure, the good works accomplished by government have far eclipsed those of churches and other charities. And this makes sense, because the resources of these private institutions are very limited compared to the resources wielded by government. So while my local soup kitchen feeds dozens of people a week, it is the federal food stamp program that is primarily responsible for greatly reducing hunger among the thousands of poor in our community. On the surface, it seems that charities may spend large amounts on helping the needy in our society – after all, Americans give about $240 billion to philanthropic organizations annually. But this figure is misleading. Most of the money raised by charities and non-profit organizations does not in fact go to those in need. Most of it goes to programs and facilities – like the YMCA, art museums, colleges, medical research, public television stations, churches, etc. – that primarily serve the middle and upper class people who donate the money. Only about 10% or $24 billion goes to fund human service programs for the needy. And only half of that amount – about $12 billion – goes to services for low-income families.1

In contrast, the federal government alone spends over $200 billion a year on programs aimed at poor and low-income families, including welfare, food stamps, Medicaid, and housing subsidies. Moreover, government also funds much of the anti-poverty and anti-hunger work done by charitable groups and non-profit human service organizations. Catholic Charities USA, which provides emergency food and shelter to the poor, gets 65% of its budget from the government.2 So it is clearly the government that is carrying the bulk of the load in caring for the neediest people in our society. Private charities and non-profits simply do not have the means to deal adequately with poverty, homelessness, hunger or virtually any of the serious problems that are causing suffering in our society.

So while most of us do not think of it this way, government is actually one of the main ways that we act as good people in the world. Our contributions to government in the form of taxes go to fund a wide variety of programs and services that have eliminated enormous amounts of suffering and vastly improved millions of people's lives. Democratic government is in part a manifestation of our desire to be responsible moral people, and it is the primary institutional mechanism that we use to make the world a better place.

Government as our Main Instrument of Compassion

One of the best examples of government as a moral instrument is the way we use it to express compassion and caring toward one another. One of our highest moral responsibilities is to try to allay the suffering of our fellow human beings. The most obvious examples of this kind of public compassion are, of course, social programs. Programs like Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, welfare, unemployment, and disaster relief are some of the major ways that we as a society express compassion for each other. They are the way we try to relieve the suffering of old age, illness, poverty, and natural disasters. Sometimes we support social insurance programs like unemployment relief for selfish reasons, because we ourselves might need to use them at some time. But often we also support them even if we know that we probably won't need them – because we care about the people that do.

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