Of course the reaction to this comment has been fierce, among both conservatives and McCain supporters (who are not necessarily the same people). Biden defended his remarks in Akron, Ohio, as reported on ABC's blog Political Radar:
"Catholic social doctrine as I was taught it is, you take care of people who need the help the most," Biden said in Akron. "Now it'd be different if you could make the case to me that by giving this tax cut to the very wealthy, everybody else was going to be better off. We saw what happened the last eight years when we gave that tax cut. Tell me how everybody is better off. And the point I want to make to you is, and I mean this sincerely — wealthy people are just as patriotic, patriotic as poor people. We just have not asked anything of them.”
The problem, I think, with Biden's comments isn't the notion that paying taxes is somehow "patriotic," which is actually a very silly idea given that paying taxes is neither voluntary nor connected in any way to one's feelings for or against one's country. (Does anyone really think Biden could have said anything like this outside the current discursive efforts to claim "patriotism" as a value of the left or of the right?!) Rather, the problem is the effort by both sides (especially by pro-government partisans of either party) to socialize philanthropy.
When I first entered vocational ministry I had to make a decision regarding whether or not I would opt out of Social Security. The minister under whom I worked explained that the only way I could opt out of SS was to sign a paper saying, essentially, that I didn't think we should help people in need. As a Christian minister, of course, I didn't think that, and I wondered how any Christian minister could sign that honestly. Since then, however, I have come to question the assumption underlying that assertion; I think the point, rather, is (or at least ought to be) whether or not you think the government is the best avenue for helping others.
For Joe Biden, apparently, the best and most direct avenue for social responsibility runs straight through the executive and legislative centers of America's federal and state governements. I say this honestly, in part because, according to The Chronicle of Philanthropy, the Bidens have averaged $369 per year in charitable giving for the past ten years. [I couldn't find similar info for McCain; though the same website reports that John McCain gave 26% of his income in charitable giving in 2007, it would be unfair to Biden to suggest these are comparable statistics.] I assume the Bidens's contributions to the IRS have been significantly more substantial, though I also assume that the Bidens also take advantage of the tax deductions for which they are eligible in order to keep as much of their money as they can. For the Bidens, then, paying taxes does indeed appear to be their way of being philanthopic and humanitarian (n.b. not patriotic).
But for many of us, including people like me who are neither liberally minded nor necessarily conservative, the government has proven itself inept and inefficient as a means for helping people whose lives are in desperate need of improvement. One needs only consider the response to Katrina, the current malaise of Galvestonians and Houstonians in Ike's wake, the state of those who depend upon Social Security, and any other governmental effort to improve the quality of life for the hard-pressed to see that suspicion of government programs is at the very least reasonable.
In the light of the acrimonious state of the American political scene, which seems to have become even more partisan since at least November 2000, I would plead with the American public, the media, and the Democratic and Republican political machines to reframe the debate. The question isn't about patriotism; it isn't even about whether or not those of us who "have" should identify with and assist those of us who "have not." The question, rather, is: What is the best, most effective, and most efficient avenue for us to help "the least of these."