A Case for Conservatism

Everyone is familiar with what is known as the “straw man” argument. Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines it as “a weak or imaginary opposition (as an argument or adversary) set up only to be easily confuted.” The easiest way to combat opponents is not by arguing with them; it’s by getting people to believe that their position is something it isn’t, and arguing with that. In that case, the more ludicrous the made-up position can be, the more effective the use of a straw-man argument is. After all, if you are arguing against a position that even your opponent wouldn’t defend, it shouldn’t be all that hard to refute.

Liberals have been doing this to conservatives for as long as anyone can remember. Trying to paint conservatives as people who don’t care about the impoverished is a most favored pursuit for those on the left, and they’ve had enough practice that they’ve become very proficient at it. President Obama himself excels at this, commenting, for example, that Republicans are “working so hard for people not to have health insurance” and that conservatives “embrace a view that can be summarized in two words: ‘anything goes.’ ”

It goes without saying that these are not at all true. Conservatives believe in helping the impoverished — and despite the president’s insistence that those of us on the right believe that “our problems will simply take care of themselves,” it is Republican leaders, like Rep. Paul Ryan, who are always presenting the boldest plans to solve problems.

Here’s the point. It isn’t hard to throw money at a problem in the hope that it will disappear. The hard part is making the money actually solve the problem. But what happens when you throw, as big-government advocates have done for many years, untold amounts of money at a “war on poverty” and see no discernible gains being made in said war? Whom, exactly, are you helping?

In a well-known Rambam in Hilchos Matnos Aniyim, the Rambam delineates the different levels of tzedakah. The highest level, says the Rambam, is when you help someone “ad shelo yitztarech le’briyos — until they don’t need to rely on other people” — i.e., to the point where they can be self-sufficient.

But the modern American “war on poverty” doesn’t come close to accomplishing that. In fact, after 50 years and over $22 trillion spent, the poverty rate is almost identical to what it was when this effort to eradicate poverty began.

How is that possible? Can a government spend an average of $44 billion a year and not make a dent in the problem? Can people who advocate for the status quo actually argue with a straight face that the problem is that they aren’t spending enough money?

The answer, if you ask defenders of this president and his allies, is “Yes we can!”

But any person grounding analysis in reality — and not the straw man talking points that liberals love — can see that the system needs an overhaul. An overhaul would mean that the programs that are supposed to be aimed at eradicating poverty would actually need to accomplish just that. But try to argue that simple point and what you will hear is some variation of “You want to take food stamps away from people who need them,” or, “You just want to leave people on their own without any help from the government.”

This is untrue.

Government assistance should be reserved for those who actually need it. In its current formulation, the government encourages dependency. It does this by providing benefits meant for the impoverished to those who can very often, with a little encouragement (and even monetary help), take care of themselves — and locking them into dependency by increasing the benefit, but threatening to yank it away if the person gets close to self-sufficiency.

So what’s so bad about this? So what if more people get benefits from the government?

The Kotzker Rebbe, zy”a, explained why the chasidah, the stork, is not kosher. After all, doesn’t Rashi explain that it is called a chasidah because “Oseh chessed  —  it does chessed”? The reason, said the Kotzker, is because “Chessed uhn a cheshbon iz der gresteh achzoriyus — kindness without any accounting is the greatest cruelty.”

In 1935, FDR said that government dependency is “…a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit.” Mind you, Roosevelt was no conservative. Yet he understood what a lot of my liberal friends and colleagues refuse to. Dependency is not a good thing in any way. Ronald Reagan said in a 1986 address to Congress that anti-poverty programs must “both meet the legitimate subsistence needs of the poor, and create an environment leading to less poverty and less government support … these [current] programs encourage dependency and entrench the very poverty they were intended to alleviate.”

Conservatives like Utah Senator Mike Lee are advocating things like expanding the refundable child tax credit to $2,500 from the current $1,000. The next time someone tells you that these policies are bad for those in our community, how about you put that up against the fact that President Obama consistently fights to severely limit the charitable tax deduction — a tax deduction many of our organizations benefit from greatly.

There are so many more examples of how conservative policies are not only more prudent, but better for our community and its most needy. I only wish that my friends who see things differently than I do wouldn’t feel the need to misrepresent my position in order to rebut it.

But they might just feel more comfortable attacking straw men.