Although Sally Struthers was once a cute, charming staple of Saturday Night television, many folks in my generation (and almost all of my students) are probably most familiar with her as a spokesperson for ChildFund, which has in turn subjected her to skewering by the folks at South Park. Her commercials, of course, featured Ms. Struthers standing in front of starving, suffering children, encouraging the audience to donate money to alleviate the suffering they were watching. The images are powerful — we’re a big-hearted, generous people, and we don’t like to see others suffer. At the same time, as the South Park folks observe, there’s a certain cognitive dissonance that accompanies seeing a well fed spokesperson chiding us into feeding everyone else.
But of course, suffering isn’t limited to other countries — in some form or other, suffering is part of the human condition in a fallen world. When we see others in pain, there is a natural desire to ease it. However, while heeding the call of Sally Struthers is voluntary and virtuous, it becomes problematic when government is involved, as James Poulos observes at Ricochet:
The growth of the entitlement state has been driven by a powerful desire to prevent Americans, whether in the public or private sector, from suffering. And the frightful lesson of the past several decades is that minimizing suffering cannot be the mission of government — certainly not among a free people, and apparently not even among a people willing to slip into servitude. Not only is government uniquely bad at funding the sorts of outlays that minimize suffering — the sensitivity to suffering, and the appetite for its minimization, seems to have no limit in democratic times.
True enough, but at Athens & Jerusalem, Alpheus raises the ante:
Most of the programs and policies that were sold to America in the name of alleviating suffering have, in the long run, made suffering worse. Welfare programs have helped to destroy the family. Unemployment insurance has encouraged jobless people to stay out of work so long that they become less attractive to employers. Medicare for the elderly seemed like a good deal, but the costs it’s imposed mean that now there’s a whole sotto voce discussion of the merits of euthanizing grandma. Cheap student loans have encouraged people to accumulate serious debt for the sake of acquiring not very useful diplomas. Backing of mortgages by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac . . .
Alpheus goes on to compare government programs to predatory lenders, but I think Ms. Struthers may provide an equally apt metaphor. Again, we must remind ourselves that we are limited creatures, and that our inventions (such as government) are correspondingly limited as well. The strain toward what Poulos calls the “analgesic government” is doomed to failure, and leaves destruction in its wake. Somehow, of course, government continues to wax in girth as well.