At a different New America event I heard one guy briefly discuss his "Christian libertarian" outlook in response to Amy Sullivan's Christian liberalism. Basically, he said, all this stuff liberals (and particularly religious liberals) say about the moral imperative to aid the poor, etc. is all quite true. That's why he thinks he has a duty to live his life virtuously by giving time, money, etc. to helping others. When he does this, he does a good deed personally, and provides help to a second person. If, however, he were to try and force me to give my money to help someone else, that would not be a virtuous act on his part or on mine. Christian compassion is all well and good, but using the state as a surrogate Robin Hood is not.
Now I don't agree with that at all. Indeed, I think it's roughly the reverse of correct. Cultivating personal virtue, whether in myself or in others, is irrelevant. The key is to help those in need by hook or by crook and, indeed, in the ideal set-up everyone would just act selfishly and the mechanisms of the state would ensure that our selfish behavior winds up serving the general interest. Like Adam Smith's invisible hand, but with progressive taxation.
Nevertheless, it's a viewpoint worth noting, because liberals have a somewhat deplorable tendency to simply assume that the only cogent reason for opposing government action to alleviate suffering is an indifference to suffering. In fact, however, what's at issue really is the role of the state. We liberals do not, at the end of the day, endorse Robin Hood like behavior on the part of private citizens so we, too, see an important distinction between state and non-state action, albeit a different distinction.
Now I am not a libertarian, and I think there are times when the state is the only agent capable of alleviating suffering, when only it can mobilize the necessary resources in a timely manner, and it is thus appropriate to use the state. However, I think that those times are few and far between. In most circumstances, when there is a choice between the state and a private institution, I think the state is less efficient, less capable, less personal, and less compassionate than the private institution would be.
But that merely addresses the specific of why I'd rather have some vague, faceless institution helping people than some vague, faceless state entity. I think there's a bigger problem with Yglesias's thinking, and that's theological. I think his perspective is, in fact, the opposite of God's.
God is capable, pretty much all monotheists agree, of solving all the world's problems. Well, why doesn't He? Why does He let people suffer? Why let them doubt when He can prove his existence? Why act out His compassion through the Church, through fallible, corruptible human agents rather than doing the job Himself? In Reaching for the Invisible God, Philip Yancey expresses his belief that it is because God is more concerned with our faith than our happiness. He is more interested in our relationship with Him and with each other than in making sure all our physical wants are met. What Matthew Yglesias is proposing would deny people the need for each other, and the opportunity to serve that need. I think that his "ideal set-up [where] everyone would just act selfishly and the mechanisms of the state would ensure that our selfish behavior winds up serving the general interest" is the opposite of what God sees as ideal.
Update: Changed the wording to make it more clear that the block quote is what Matthew Yglesias said, not my response to it. Plus I capitalized Church.
Update: I spent a lot of time attacking Yglesias's view of the role of the state, but in doing that I glossed over the last paragraph, which I think is the main point of the post. I just wanted to make it clear that I appreciate that he takes the effort to understand and respect other opinions. And while I strongly disagree with his opinion on theological grounds, I don't think he is insincere in what he said. I'll also give him the benefit of the doubt on his ideal set-up. I think what he is describing is a system that would care for the poor even if everyone is selfish, not that he wants a system which encourages everyone to be selfish. I'm just not sure the two can really be separated. You don't learn compassion and self-sacrifice if no one needs them from you.