Let the Government Do It — and Only the Government

In his acceptance speech to the Democratic National Convention, Barack Obama stirringly declared that all people are connected: “It’s that fundamental belief — I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper — that makes this country work.” And in his appearance at Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church, he said, “America’s greatest moral failing in my lifetime has been that we still don’t abide by that basic precept of Matthew — whatever you do to the least of my brothers, you do to me.”

And some conservative commentators like Rush Limbaugh suggested that it was hypocritical of Obama to declare his belief that each of us is ”my brother’s keeper” while his own half-brother lives at subsistence level in Kenya. Shouldn’t being your brother’s keeper start with, you know, your brother?

But maybe that’s unfair. This particular half-brother, George Hussein Onyango Obama, is 20 years younger than Barack Obama, and they’ve met only twice. Why should he be responsible for his half-brother’s welfare?

But then I noticed something else. Barack and Michelle Obama gave almost nothing to charity until their income skyrocketed after his election to the Senate in 2004. Between 2000 and 2004, for instance, they made about $1,218,000 and gave $10,770 to charity, a bit less than 0.9 percent. In 2005 and 2006, Obama earned much more from his books, and his wife’s salary at the University of Chicago doubled. In those two years they made more than $2.6 million and gave just over 5 percent to charity.

And then Joe Biden released his tax returns. And as the TaxProfBlog says, “the returns show that the Bidens have been amazingly tight-fisted when it comes to their charitable giving.  Despite income ranging from $210,432 - $321,379 over the ten-year period, the Bidens have given only $120 - $995 per year to charity, which amounts to 0.06% - 0.31% of their income.” The average American in that income category gives far more.

So Obama and Biden believe strongly that we are our brother’s keeper. They believe in redistribution of income to the poor and the middle class (and the Wall Street bankers). Are they hypocrites when they don’t give much of their own money?

Maybe not. They’re not hypocrites if they believe that it’s the job of government to take care of the needy. And that it’s not the job of anyone else. The traditional American argument for welfare and other transfer programs is that government should step in to take care of needs that can’t be met through self-help, mutual aid, churches, or other charities. But there’s another view in modern America, a view that says helping people is the job of government in the first place. Advocates of that view complain that we shouldn’t expect private charity to do the job of government, that caring for the needy is rightly and appropriately a collective task that should be undertaken collectively (and coercively) by government. That would seem to undermine the notion of virtue; I might consider my personal charity a virtue, but how can I think of myself as virtuous if all I did was pay my taxes as ordered? But there are clearly people who believe that faith, hope, and charity are attributes of government, not of individuals, churches, and private charities.

If that’s what Obama and Biden believe–that personal charity is no substitute for government welfare and foreign aid–then they’re not hypocrites. They’re living by their beliefs. But those are not the beliefs and practices of most Americans, who give more money to charity than Obama and Biden and who are perhaps unsurprisingly more likely to give and to give more if they oppose government redistribution.

But if that is Obama’s position, then he should not say “I am my brother’s keeper.” He should say, “You are my brother’s keeper,” or ”Everyone is everyone’s brother’s keeper, and I as a politician will tax you to pay for his needs.”