Government serves best when it protects and safeguards—rather than crowds out—the poverty-fighting institutions of civil society

Quote of the Day for Thursday, May 5th, 2011:

Ryan Messmore, writing at the Heritage Foundation website, on the ruse that a social and political order disciplined by a commitment to limited government is to be equated with an antipathy for the poor:

The goal of overcoming poverty is not simply to eliminate need, but to enable people to thrive—that is, to empower them to live meaningful lives and contribute to society. Thriving is much more than a full stomach and a place to sleep. People tend to flourish in the context of healthy relationships with their families and communities. Suffering and breakdown often result when those relationships are absent or unhealthy.

Efforts to fight poverty are more effective if they tend to the full range of relationships necessary for thriving. Successful approaches not only heal brokenness where it exists, but also strengthen healthy relationships, which make poverty unlikely in the first place. Preventing a problem is often more effective in the long run than continually treating the symptoms.

Calls for increased welfare spending frequently miss the deeper problem: Poverty in America is often more the result of multiple broken relationships in peoples’ lives than the result of a lack of material resources. Financial trouble is often a symptom of a deeper breakdown. Whether a father abandoning his children, a broken marriage turning a spouse to drugs, or a teenage boy looking for acceptance in a gang, poverty and social breakdown often stem from people relating wrongly to someone or something. These broken lives resulting from broken relationships often lead to material hardship.

Effective responses to poverty address the relational dynamics that lead people to drug addiction, depression, fear, violence, and the inability to keep a job. Yet a large bureaucratic government is ill equipped to address precisely these dynamics and relationships.

Hope, trust, friendship, accountability, discipline, encouragement, and healthy personal relationships are key ingredients of human well-being. When they are missing or ruptured, the result may be poverty, delinquency, or social breakdown. Civil society institutions that foster face-to-face interaction best cultivate these ingredients of human flourishing. Poverty-reduction efforts should therefore strengthen those spheres of society in which healthy relationships grow.

When considering the role of government in alleviating poverty, public policy should acknowledge the relational nature of poverty as well as the vital contributions from local, personal institutions. Government is an important piece of a larger framework that benefits people in need, but government serves best when it protects and safeguards—rather than crowds out—the poverty-fighting institutions of civil society.

This essay demonstrates some clear thinking on a perennially important topic, but like most “conservative” views promoting what used to be called the liberal order of public life, it reads much too much like a report, and not enough like a manifesto. Still, it’s a fairly solid presentation of an idea that is going to have to be nurtured into an effective story, if America is going to avoid the slide into moral anarchy that is pounding on the doors of those European societies awash now in entitlementism coupled with fiscal insolvency. How on earth, after all, does a society deal with a constantly growing underclass of perpetually unemployed or underemployed state-dependent subjects, who expect (and have been promised) a never-ending stream of bread & circus? The domination of society by the bureaucratic state is such a profoundly stupid idea that it is difficult to even find untrammeled ground upon which to stand to criticize it

Via First Thoughts

– Update: with some discussion here, demonstrating yet again just how pervasive assumptions regarding the “normalcy” of state-dependency have quietly become.