Thursday, October 20, 2016

Reflections: The Tragedy of American Compassion

By far one of the most interesting non-fiction books I read last year was Life at the Bottom by Theodore Dalrymple. It presented a view of poverty that was provocative and challenging. In addition, its focus was on the ideas which create and perpetuate poverty, which is a little understood and often ignored element of the problem. The Tragedy of American Compassion takes a similar approach. The author, Marvin Olasky, seeks to delineate the pervasive ideas of those who combated poverty in the 18th and 19th century and how those ideas truly helped the poor, as opposed to the ideas of today which hurt the poor. Like Life at the Bottom, it's a provocative book which should not be ignored in the wider discussion about poverty.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of The Tragedy of American Compassion is its re-alignment of the word compassion. As with many words in politics, compassion becomes a word used as often in political attacks as it does to encourage others to actually have compassion. Furthermore, as Olasky shows, the word compassion meant something very, very different to those charity workers of the 18th and 19th century than it does to our professional social workers and bureaucrats of today. Perhaps the most challenging idea posited in the book is that some forms of charity are more harmful than doing nothing at all. In other words, Olasky suggests many of our modern prescriptions to cure poverty—such as the Great Society—has perpetuated and exacerbated some of the most pernicious problems of poverty, such as unwed pregnancy and family abandonment by fathers. These aren't necessarily new ideas from the conservative side of the ideological scale, but The Tragedy of American Compassion does a nice job of reinforcing the reasons for the belief.

As someone who believes strongly in the power of ideas, I found the book's exploration of the ideas which inform our prescriptions for poverty to be the most interesting. Olasky wrote: "Our ideas about poverty always reflect our ideas about the nature of man."  There is a lot to unpack from that simple statement. As society moved away from the Biblical view of mankind, what were the impacts of that shift? How does that change our approach to poverty and how to solve it? Those are compelling questions, which I feel secular society dismisses with too little thought and consideration. Regardless of your theology or lack thereof, one must admit, in my opinion, the ideas of religion matter deeply and influence at a fundamental level how we approach societal issues and how we approach each other. Are we treating the poor like animals in a zoo—simply feeding them and not requiring any type of behavioral change—because we truly see each other as animals, merely the result of a long, uninterrupted evolutionary process, and incapable of change? The Tragedy of American Compassion adds a valuable level of insight into this consequential question.  (Albeit, I found some of Olasky's comments regarding the homeless to be painting with a brush which was a bit too large but thought-provoking nonetheless). 

Perhaps the biggest downfall of the book is that it was written over twenty years ago.  As one can imagine, there has been a great deal more literature and research completed since the publication of this book regarding poverty, its causes, and its effects.  However, I'm not convinced the ideas discussed in The Tragedy of American Compassion are any less valuable.  The other downside to the book is the writing.  Overall, the writing is fine, at times pithy, but not particularly memorable.  Too often the book buries the reader in data which is redundant.  I thought to myself once or twice while reading it: "Move on." 

The Tragedy of American Compassion is a good book.  It's interesting and provides a valuable perspective on poverty, as well as a compelling history of compassion throughout America's history.  It wasn't as memorable or provocative as Dalrympe's excellent Life at the Bottom, but it showcases ideas regarding poverty we should not overlook.

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: Life at the Bottom: The Worldview that Makes the Underclass
Reflections: The Road to Serfdom
Reflections: Capitalism and Freedom

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