"Government" is simply the name we give to the things we choose to do together. That's what Barney Frank likes to say, we're told.
But I missed the meeting where we all got together and chose to punish folks who voluntarily help the needy.
Conservatives have long argued that big government welfare programs often displace more effective (and more virtue-building) private charities and volunteer activities.
Two news stories in the past week show that big-government regulations -- undoubtedly created in the name of protecting the public -- sometimes make it illegal to help the most vulnerable.
Mike Haege runs a tree-trimming business. After a tornado, he went out on a mission of charity to help clear away debris from victims' homes. A city government official told him this was illegal, because he didn't have the right permit. So he started driving out of town. That's when the story gets really bad:
The inspector told him to get out of the city, so Haege left with the volunteer. As they were on their way back to the volunteer area, residents waved down Haege, pleading for help. He pulled over and helped get a tree out of the way for them.
Haege had no idea police officers were behind him in a sort of unofficial escort out of town. He said they stopped traffic for about two hours while they figured out what to do with him. At one point, officers threatened to throw him in jail, he said... Last he knew, he was going to receive a citation in the mail for trimming trees without a license in Minneapolis, which he heard was a $400 fine.
What could be worse than that? How about busting people for feeding the homeless without a permit?
Members of Orlando Food Not Bombs were arrested Wednesday when police said they violated a city ordinance by feeding the homeless in Lake Eola Park.
Admittedly, the homeless helpers were operating in a public park, so the government has some authority over them, but still, this is a good story to keep in mind when politcians and journalists equate limited-government opinions with disregard for the needy.
On the topic of our obligations to the poor and needy and the question of the proper role of government, I recommend this new essay, written by Stephen White of the Catholic Studies Program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, titled "Catholic Conservatives and the Common Good."