Community, Social Financing and the Role of the State
Reflections from Toronto's Ice Storm
January 8, 2014
Over the Christmas period many people in Toronto and various parts of Ontario experienced prolonged power outages. My own family, including four visiting from England, counting a baby, were without power in our home for a total of eight days. On day five, Christmas Day, we bailed on our freezing house and went to church friends’ until after the power had returned. We put as much food from our fridge and freezer as we could into a plastic container in the back yard in the sub-zero temperatures to preserve it and accepted the hospitality of others, having received many generous offers. Significant crises like these reveal a lot about the state of our social order and the health and condition of family and community. It was a blessing to see our church community function in the manner the church should, and has done, historically in the West. Many in need were offered hospitality and some of our deacons not only visited vulnerable members in apartment towers, offering emergency accommodation in their own homes, but they extended those offers to weak and elderly people, who are not part of the church community, living above and below some of our members. In other instances families simply took in all their children and grandchildren, which has historically been part of the welfare function of the family.
What we also saw in Toronto, however, amongst many generous acts of kindness, was a growing sense of state dependence, and the reality of government intervention, with some politicians using the moment to make political hay by grabbing photo opportunities dishing out state-issued food cards and baskets, championing themselves as friends of the poor. As a result I was asked to discuss the matter on Toronto’s talk radio, the question being, should the state be in the fridges of the nation handing out cash on grocery cards and playing nanny to the citizens of Ontario?
Two things are particularly important to say about this.
First, the fact that there is a perceived need for state intervention in such times reveals the steady loss of a communitarian spirit in the culture. Increasing atomization in our society and rugged individualism resulting from the breakdown of the family and the diminishing role of the church and Christian faith in the social order leaves increasing numbers of people isolated and without any wider support structure.
Alongside this, charitable giving has plummeted to record lows so that even charities concerned with relief look to the state for subsidy. In such a situation, the state plays family and church and steps into fill a void it has sought to create!
Social financing and support must be provided in time of crisis, the question is, who should provide it and why? The real danger today, proved in moments like this, is that the state has involved itself in almost every area of life by means of taxation, regulation and controls. By this we are steadily being reduced to serf wards of the state. Why then is it dangerous and misguided to expect the government to do charity? We often fail to ask the simple questions and leap immediately to the problem at hand as consummate pragmatists, and this is a big part of the problem.
The first question to ask is, ‘what is the state?’ The state in the West has been conceived as the differentiated public, which by the consent of the governed exists to ‘minister’ to or ‘serve’ the people in certain limited areas of necessary government in civil life. The essence of the state’s authority and existence is coercion. The state would be pointless unless it is coercive. The state does not and cannot ‘love.’ Whenever therefore you introduce the state into areas of life outside of matters of justice and law, you have introduced the element of coercion into that particular area of life and removed another area of liberty.
Secondly, the state has no resources accept for those it coercively exacts from the citizenry – the people. So when people say the government should do this or that, what they are in fact demanding is that the state should coercively take resources from the people for certain ends. There is no such thing as a free lunch. If the state is going to buy grocery cards for people to fill their fridge, it does so as an act of coercion, not charity, love, or free generosity which is rightly the role of the family, the church and voluntary community in the exercise of charity. Is my neighbor down the street to be coerced into filling my fridge? Is that just and right? Now we might say he ought to want to fill my fridge if my kids are hungry and he has the means to do so, but that is not the same as saying he must, and should be forced to pay for it. If my supplies were running low and I broke into a neighbor’s house and stole the food from his fridge, I would be called a thief, but if the state does it, many people call it ‘social justice.’ Because all the things the state does today are funded by progressive taxation, borrowing and money printing, within a redistributive welfare economy, the more that the power and roles of the state are expanded, the more theft, confiscation and large-scale robbery takes place. The state does not fill anyone’s fridge, other people do through confiscation that is imposed upon them. This leads not to social harmony, charity and community, but class warfare, mutual resentment, rugged individualism, selfishness and envy. Our culture is steadily being turned into one great big reservation of government handouts that is bankrupting the country because the source of love found in the Christian faith, is breaking down.
The great need of our time, revealed by ice storms and power failures, is the restoration of the proper function of the church and family where the love of God is expressed through self-giving, willing generosity and love, that begins with simple hospitality. The state is not the family, neither is it the church, and whenever and wherever its powers have been expanded to all areas of life, slavery, tyranny and robbery have been the result. If the church strengthens the family and recovers the welfare duties given to her in Scripture, freedom, charity, community and love will flourish again.