Posted by: Ken Brown | February 19, 2008

Compassion and Coercion

The following is a slightly revised version of a post I wrote for the original, and now defunct, Signs of the Times. It was first posted in October 2005, shortly after Hurricane Katrina, and relates to my post from earlier today. Google Cache has a copy of the original, which is otherwise no longer available:

Matt Kaufman has written an interesting article at Boundless discussing our compassion in responding to tragedy, and the way it gets abused in politics. He argues that to politicize compassion is to destroy it, for real compassion comes from caring individuals, not government programs. He writes:

You can argue for some government programs on the grounds that they’re necessary, and that no other alternatives will do: The argument may be wrong in many cases, but it’s not inherently dishonest. You can’t, however, seriously claim that any government programs are driven by compassion. Compassion, as I’m wont to point out, is voluntary by definition; coerced compassion is a contradiction in terms.

This is all true, of course. A forced gift is no gift at all. But perhaps Kaufman is a bit too hard on the role of government. We can complain all we want about how a government agency botched its response to this or that disaster, how it failed to protect such-and-such group of people, or how it wastes billions on bureaucracy. These are no doubt valid criticisms that should be addressed. But in spite of all those deficiencies, government programs can serve an important and sometimes unrecognized role.

The fact is, we individuals may have big hearts and we may be far more compassionate than any government agency ever could be, but we also have shorter memories. When a tragedy strikes, we admirably pinch our pockets and rush to help, but what about the rest of the time? Once the novelty of the situation wears off, few of us continue to give. Who among us are still giving aid to the tsunami survivors? Not me, I admit. Need doesn’t end when the news gets old, but our interest usually does.

This isn’t an indictment; it’s simply a fact of human nature. Our brains are wired to pay attention to what’s new, and our giving reflects that. That’s why even voluntary aid organizations suggest scheduling monthly payments – on our own, we forget. When World Vision takes 30 bucks from my checking account each month, it may feel like a little of the humanity of giving has been lost; but it’s better that, then that my sponsored child gets forgotten when I’m busy. It’s for this reason that we need programs, even forced programs, to ensure that our concern with the needy isn’t forever bound to the latest heart-wrenching news. Sometimes, we need a little coercion to keep things happening when our minds shift to other issues.

Of course, needed or not, programs can be run well or poorly, and compassion cannot be reduced to a government subsidy. So by all means, criticize the government when it is inefficient, misguided or poorly managed (better yet, work to improve it). Certainly, heap praise on those who don’t wait for a program to kick in, but come out in droves to support the latest victims of tragedy. But don’t forget the ongoing needs, the silent and unnoticed victims of poverty. Bureaucracy can be an evil, but it can also help keep aid going to all the little tragedies that don’t make the news. Whether through government agencies or private organizations, compassion and coercion don’t have to be enemies.

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