The Distributist’s Guide to Community Service

With the holiday volunteering season well underway, several friends have forwarded me an opinion/comedy clip, from the increasingly popular youtube series: Adam Ruins Everything. The video explains the problem of organizing the typical “canned” food drive. It’s short and certainly worth a view.

There is a lot to say about this. First it’s important to point out that the video does make a lot of valid points.  It is categorically better to give money to food banks rather than cans and there is a problem with people donating unusable goods, spoiled and non-nutritious food to aid organizations.  Also, as a frequent volunteer, I can attest to the fact that people oftentimes underestimate the labor needed to transport and sort donations as well as the sheer volume of food that a bank discards due to spoilage.

But good grief, this video is insufferably smug. I mean, take a look at the still frame that closes out Adam’s argument:

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Does this look like two people exploring a better way to serve their community? Of course not. This is a picture of two people who are trying to upstage each other on the scale of social-justice piety. Adam just won and Emily is chewing on the cold gristle of being wrong, a bitter pill indeed.

But this snarky attitude is hardly unique to this video. Increasingly, in the post-John-Stewart era of social commentary, conversations concerning justice are brought forward by people who seem more invested in the rightness of their argument than in encouraging concern for their cause.

But why does a conversation about charity have to be like this? Isn’t everyone trying to help? It’s puzzling, and indeed the problem itself might indicate something deeper about how society conceptualizes virtue and service.

Our modern era is in a transitional period between two overarching ethical systems. On the one hand modern society embraces a broad utilitarianism that reduces good to the delivery of the maximum resources to the maximum number of people. On the other hand, we have a fleeting  commitment to Christian virtue ethics which emphasizes sacrifice and commitment above purely strategic benefits to the individual or society. Although, much of modern culture emphasizes the cohesion between these two belief systems there remains an un-resolvable conflict between the perspectives.

Certainly, it’s not hard to see why the utilitarian perspective is dominant in the modern world. Utilitarianism is comfortable, easy to visualize, and safe. It reduces a complicated questions about obligation to simpler questions about management and strategy. Utilitarianism can easily be integrated into any large corporate or government structure. It fits on a balance sheet and is easy to conceptualize in an economy mostly run from excel sheets.

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John Stuart Mill, circa 1870

But at a basic level, I think people still yearn for the older notion of virtue.  We all feel that service to the community is good in a way that transcends its basic economic benefit. We admire people who dedicate  their lives to the poor even if those same individuals might have generated more utility by getting a job at Goldman-Sachs and cutting a million dollar check to charity at the end of a lucrative career. Virtue is not a question of economic effectiveness, rather it is rooted in a central obligation to a cause greater than oneself. But classical virtue is not a concept that can be easily translated into the utilitarian language of John Stuart Mill. Strictly speaking there is no room for concepts like altruism and nobility in a system designed to describe the provision of benefits.

Given this absence, there is a temptation to recast virtue into a new utilitarian framework. Instead of a virtue defined by service and sacrifice, perhaps actions might be deemed virtuous in so far as they result in quantifiable progress towards solving society’s problems. This is how most modern progressives think of virtue and it certainly sounds logical enough. After all, this is an objective measure of the good we are doing for others, so what could possibly go wrong?

Well everything in fact. Not only is the utilitarian concept of virtue deeply at odds with human psychology, from a practical point of view the perspective is a sure fire recipe for despair and exhaustion when it comes to charitable endeavors.

Sure, we volunteered at a food bank this week, but the same people will come in the next week looking no better, so what good has been accomplished? Sure, we donated 200 dollars to poverty relief this month, but is the problem any closer to getting solved? Our own contribution is in the rounding error of the Gates Foundation’s yearly dispensation, so will our own effort even be noticed?

At a time when our perspective on world problems is so acute and our ability to contribute so limited, a virtue derived from the utility is extremely difficult to appreciate.

However, just as the utilitarian perspective diminishes the perceived value of service and charity, it amplifies the perceived significance of activism.  Since noticeable results develop from large macro-cosmic changes, identifying as an “activist” emphasizes the role an individual plays in globally addressing the problem, an outcome with easy to visualize utility. The impact of raising awareness seems large because it emphasizes the completed goal rather than the work done to get there, by contrast personal service and charity are by their very nature local actions. Therefore, an enormous amount of perceived virtue can be gained simply by being right about an important humanitarian issue.

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Perception of virtue in a utilitarian system

Of course this is all perception. It’s not clear that a part-time activist has more impact than a regular volunteer. But the attraction of being the person who “sets everyone straight” on the issue rather than the person who does the material labor is obvious. Not only is writing e-mails and tweets easier than waking up early and going to a homeless shelter, being a “Hunger Activist” sounds so much cooler than being a “Regular Food Bank Volunteer”. Therefore we will always have more people demanding “an end to homelessness” than show up on a cold Sunday morning to sort donations.

I think this goes to the heart of the endemic smugness in Adam’s video. It may even be at the heart of the unending pretentiousness regarding organic food, carbon-emissions and other pieties discussed endlessly in progressive media. The person who informs other people about the “right” way to do things is virtuous because he is fighting for the ultimate solution and is therefore better than the people working on the problem in the “wrong” way. When you’re on the right side of history, you really don’t need to bother getting your hands dirty over the details.

Now all of this is not to say that we shouldn’t point out new and better ways to serve our community. Insight and activism are valuable. But dare I say that the lack of a robust service ethic might be hurting our motivation to get out and actually help society? We need to join a community before we begin to steer it, and the most important step towards forming an effective solution is caring enough to show up and work on the problem in the first place.

As statistics can attest, volunteering is down. This is a real problem for contemporary society. Even from a utilitarian point of view, a strong community is necessary to develop citizens willing to pay forward service, charity, and activism. Therefore the old-fashioned focus on dedication and service may ultimately be more effective at generating utility, albeit indirectly.

Perhaps we can take a different perspective to service going forward. Why not focus on participating in at least one local volunteer organization to the extent that one recognizes the names and faces of the people who work there. Be a person who can understand, from experience, the specific problems and challenges of a local organization. This starts with participation in service groups even if we are aware that they have flaws. This is the first step to building the kind of community that will make exponentially more progress towards solving problems. In the meantime let’s get to work. Even if there are problems the participation itself make a difference.

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Community means involvement

Does your community meal program not serve fresh organic food? Don’t worry about it. Concerned that the people who visit the foodbank are using it for non-essential supplemental income? That’s not your immediate concern. Are you thinking that you might be better off donating the money rather than judging a high school science fair? Trust me, you probably won’t.

Just show up and volunteer. You are helping more than you might think.

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The Distributist’s Guide To Home Brewing

A great article about the arch-Distributist’s own trip to Prohibition-era America. Expecting a puritan hell-hole, G.K. Chesterton was instead greeted with a DIY culture that was handling the illegality of alcohol Macgyver-style. The art of modern home-brewing had been born. Chesterton gleefully reported:

“…with this widespread revival of the old human habit of home-brewing, much of tc7e53dfac1d57d4c7136e904bfad0fc4hat old human atmosphere that went with it has really reappeared… Prohibition has to that extent actually worked the good, in spite of so malignantly and murderously willing the evil. And the
good is this: the restoration of legitimate praise and pride of the creative crafts of the home.”

The episode was all the more ironic considering that Chesterton had previously wrote a teetotaler horror-story entitled “The Flying Inn” in which an Islamic-progressive coalition’s push for prohibition is defied, and eventually overthrown, by the wit and charm of a small town pub. Chesterton was prophetic.

Illegalization does create a certain camaraderie. Ask any Washington State or Colorado pot-head who is now watching their cherished sub-culture become mainstream. Still, Chesterton does take the concept a little too far in the name of romantic community building.

“This being the case, it seems that some of our more ardent supporters might well favour a strong, simple and sweeping policy. Let Congress or Parliament pass a law not only prohibiting fermented liquor, but practically everything else. Let the Government forbid bread, beef, boots, hats and coats; let there be a law against anybody indulging in chalk, cheese, leather, linen, tools, toys, tales, pictures or newspapers. Then, it would seem by serious sociological analogy, all human families will begin vigorously to produce all these things for themselves; and the youth of the world will really return.”

Prohibition is one way to encourage home-grown production and defiant subcultures. Still, it’s quite clear that G.K. Chesterton’s romantic travels in 1920s America never led him to cross paths with the likes of Al Capone.

A Discussion on Economic Distribution

Recently I have been looking to open more communication channels with people who hold opposing views. Last week I met with Damien Athope who was a critic of my earlier lecture on confidence.

In this video we discussed economics and distribution and tried to find common ground between his more anarchist/mutualist perspective and my libertarian/distributist perspective. The discussion was 2 hours.

Why I’m Praying for More Judicial Activism against Online Privacy

We all knew this was coming. Yesterday, the courts pushed back against earlier rulings on privacy and the NSA’s data-collection schemes. From the New York Times :

“A federal judge on Friday ruled that a National Security Agency program that collects enormous troves of phone records is legal, making the latest contribution to an extraordinary debate among courts and a presidential review group about how to balance security and privacy in the era of big data

In just 11 days, the two judges and the presidential panel reached the opposite of consensus on every significant question before them, including the intelligence value of the program, the privacy interests at stake and how the Constitution figures in the analysis.”

I do hope that the US Supreme Court picks this case up. Not that I’m expecting the court to rule in favor of privacy, I just want some definitive status-quo so that an honest discussion of the issue can take place. I get the sense reading the news that no one really understands what’s at stake or the relevant precedence in law for online privacy. The technology is changing fast and, consequently, no one feels like its worth developing a strong opinion. At this time, a large judicial decision might help people wake up and become involved with the issue of digital privacy.

I think this is more or less the role that Roe vs. Wade had on the issue of abortion. Before the landmark ruling, the anti-abortion movement was a disorganized coalition of church groups shell-shocked by the sexual revolution and unable to put forward any argument beyond dogma. Forty years later, with the specter of Roe vs.Wade still looming, the Pro-Life community had formed itself into a cohesive and burgeoning movement dwarfing its opposition on the national stage.

I would hope something similar might be possible for the advocates of online privacy. A setback wrought through judicial activism would be bad; but could anything be worse than the slow deterioration of privacy through apathy and public ignorance?