Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Real Dispute on Charity

HT Andrew Sullivan, here quite an interesting link (no longer accessible, alas) to libertarian Doug Mataconi challenging liberal assumptions on the true nature of compassion. Specifically, he says that liberals want the fake compassion of government programs and libertarians want the real compassion of voluntary giving. He also complains that in discussing the subject liberals and conservatives/libertarians are talking past each other, and that the liberal view of compassion as government programs has become so dominant in discourse as to drown out alternatives.

Certainly every time I read conservative critiques of government social programs (either by libertarians or by Evangelicals), I do indeed come away with the impression that we are talking past each other, though perhaps not for the same reasons he does. To me it all comes down to a book I read by a rabbi about contrasting Christian and Jewish views of charity. Both religions, he commented, emphasize the importance of charitable giving. Both see it as having two purposes, to provide for the poor, and to teach us to be generous. But Jews focus more on providing for the poor and Christians focus more on teaching people to be generous.

This has some important implications. If the focus is on teaching people to be generous, then charity has to be voluntary; to coerce it defeats its entire purpose. If people’s voluntary donations do not adequately provide for the poor, then the remedy is to teach generosity better. Since generosity comes from the heart, it is a deeply personal matter that cannot be coerced. The focus is on the rights of the giver. In the Jewish view, by contrast, a mandatory tax does make sense.* Since the purpose is to provide for the por, ensuring sufficient resources to see to it that the poor are adequately provided for takes priority. By all means, let’s do better at teaching people to be generous, but in the mean time, the poor have to be provided for. The focus is on the needs of the recipient.

This, I would say, is the real difference in viewpoints. Evangelical Christians say that how charitable they wish to be is a private matter that the government has no business dictating. Libertarians say that being taxed for anything beyond essential core functions of government is a violation of their rights. Both denounce any taxpayer funded social services as socialism. I would say that socialism is the view that only the needs of the recipient matter, and that the rights of the giver have no legitimate place in public discourse, the Jewish view taken to its illogical conclusion. But the view I hear from libertarians is the opposite – that only the rights of the giver matter, and that the needs of the recipient have no legitimate place in public discourse. The absolutism of this view is alarming. I prefer a less absolutist view – that the proper balance between the rights of the giver and the needs of the recipient is a proper subject of public discourse.

To be fair to Mataconi, he does not appear to take the absolutist libertarian viewpoint. He acknowledges at least some scope for a taxpayer funded safety net and criticizes governmental social programs at least partly based on their effectiveness. But he offers two links (inaccessible because I cannot access the original) that do come much closer to the absolutist libertarian view. The first concedes that there might be room to disagree on whether private efforts would be sufficient, but then moves on to more important matters -- there is nothing compassionate about robbing people of their hard-earned money and theatening them with prison cells for tax evasion. Clearly, the adequacy of private efforts are a minor matter easily brushed aside; the important thing is the coercive and illegitimate nature of taxation. Still, ultimately he fails to address what to do if private contributions are not sufficient. The second, by contrast, does. He argues at length that we should learn to distinguish between society and that state. Society has legitimate business providing for the poor and the sick; the state does not. Society should not let the uninsured die for lack of coverage; the state should. And there’s the answer. If voluntary giving is not enough to pay for medical case, better for the uninsured to be left to die than for taxpayers to be forced to foot the bill.

I suppose my answer to all this would be that I am not willing to leave the uninsured to die because voluntary charity should provide for them. People don’t always do what they should. Government has a way of stepping in when they don’t. So sure, I believe that voluntary private charity should be sufficient to provide for the poor and the sick. I also believe that people should refrain from committing crimes, businesses should be scrupulously honest in their dealings, married people should live happily ever after, and all food on the shelves should be clean and safe. I also acknowledge that it doesn’t always work out that way. That’s why we have a criminal justice system, civil courts, divorce courts, and public health inspectors. And since private charity does not, in fact, adequately provide for the poor and the sick we have a social safety net. I would also say that I measure a society’s compassion, not just by how subjectively generous people are in their hearts, but by how objectively well it cares for its weakest members.

And that, I believe, is the real dispute over charity -- is its purpose to provide for the poor, or to teach us to be generous. Which matters more, the rights of the giver, or the needs of the recipient? Until we bring these alternate viewpoints into the clear light, the talking past each other will continue.**

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*It is probably impolitic to point out that Islam takes a distinction Jewish view here. Islam favors a mandatory tax to provide for the poor with additional, voluntary donations strongly encouraged.
**And what is really interesting is how the same person can flip from one view to another apparently without noticing he difference. Left libertarian
Jim Henley says that he might have written something like that once. He even says, "I supported the true empathy of unforced charity, worried about government programs 'crowding out' civil society, and believed that the 'coerced' nature of redistributive policies made it impossible to be 'moral' at all, since morality requires affirmative choice." Clearly the focus is on charity as teaching us to be generous and entirely on the rights of the giver. The needs of the recipient are secondary at best. But he explains that he has change his mind. The reasons he gives essentially deal with his severe doubts about the ability of private contributions to do the job – the costs of modern medicine are too great, local communities are easily overwhelmed, and the emotional burden can be just too great outside of the sort of impersonal bureaucratic organization that gives some professional distance. In other words, the needs of the recipient will not be met. Does he not see the basic difference in outlook between these two views?

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