Many of us think that federally funded government programs should be responsible for increased funding for education, a more generous welfare system, health care for all, and foreign aid for poor countries. But another form of providing for the needy emerges when the government gets out of the way and lets private organizations emerge, funded voluntarily by individuals.
Jewish tradition teaches us how to behave as Jews, and most dictates are given to the individual. But what do we learn about how the state is to behave? How expansive should state regulation be? We are told to respect the laws of the land, but little is said about what those laws should be.
Almost all of our responsibilities to God and to each other are incumbent upon us as individuals. But our prayers are in the plural — heal us, save us. We worship communally. For many Jews, the exhortations to care for the less fortunate and the communal nature of Judaism translate naturally into political action at the national level and support for the welfare state, the public school system, publicly provided old-age assistance, and the rest of the progressive agenda.
But there is another way to repair the world — a way outside of politics and government that relies on individualism and a localized communal response. The key distinction is not between collective action and individual action, but between collective action mediated through the political process from the top down and collective action mediated through individual choices from the bottom up. Individualism need not connote selfishness. Individualism underlies what is sometimes summarized as civil society — a network of voluntarily created organizations that compete for donations from individuals outside of the political process. In this approach, there is no single “we.” Instead, we join communities and organizations as individuals, working with others on behalf of others.
In a world where the welfare state is large, civil society struggles to assert itself. But we can imagine the possibilities for a larger role for civil society when we look at areas where government withdraws its reach and makes room for individual choices.
One such example is the American religious scene. We join congregations, fund buildings and social action efforts, and create community. The Jewish part of that world is a dynamic system of innovation and choice — a stew of different denominations and post-denominational choices constantly being stirred by individual choices of exit, entry, and financial support.
Some of the most effective programs that help the least fortunate are run by private organizations funded by individual donations. In St. Louis, where I once lived, St. Patrick’s Center runs a restaurant that trains mentally ill homeless people for employment in food service. In Maryland, where I live now, the Sunflower Bakery trains the developmentally disabled in a similar fashion. On a much larger scale, the Harlem Children’s Zone in New York (HCZ) has created a cradle-to-college set of programs to help the least-fortunate children and families of Harlem to thrive. They serve roughly 12,000 children and 12,000 adults. Their budget is $100 million, two thirds of which comes from private funds.
Private organizations such as the HCZ often outperform their public competition. Are they merely a curiosity made possible by an incredible leader — in this case, Geoffrey Canada, who joined the HCZ in the early 1990s and transformed the organization? Could private schools funded by scholarships do a better job than the public school system? I’d like to find out. But the current level of welfare spending and public school expenditures by taxes makes it harder for private alternatives to raise money.
A bottom-up approach to social problems is unlikely to raise the level of funds that government assistance or public schools can achieve through taxation. But maybe that is a feature rather than a bug. Per-pupil spending has increased steadily over the last 50 years; there is little indication that this approach is working. Spending money wisely can be more important than the amount spent.
There is more than one way to repair the world. Society might be healthier if we were free to choose where our money goes — not just the money we spend on ourselves, but also the money we spend on behalf of others. Not only may it give the least fortunate among us a better chance to flourish, but it may also help the most fortunate among us to learn the power of giving.