Thoughts On The Ethics Of Private Vs. Publicly-Mediated Generostiy

Tom Rhees has a fascinating article in which he analyzes religious and irreligious generosity by a number of metrics, yielding some revealing insights. The whole piece is worth reading. But I would like to focus on this last bit:

Arguably, charity is a means to redistribute wealth from the rich to the poor. Seen in this light, it is a competitor to state welfare programs, because money taken in taxes can’t be given as charity. But charity is a relatively ineffective tool for redistributing wealth, because it’s susceptible to free riders. These are people who benefit from society’s efforts to help the poor but don’t give money themselves (after all, if you’re not Bill Gates, then your donation will hardly be missed). The free-rider effect occurs because the utility of charitable giving (i.e., the benefit that accrues to the donor from giving, compared with the benefit that would accrue from keeping the money) is low. For the religious, this is not so important. For them, the utility of charitable giving is increased because they believe that they will be rewarded (either now or in the hereafter) by their god. For atheists, however, the free-rider effect dramatically changes the optimal balance between charity and state-mediated support for the poor.

There’s good evidence that this is the case. Chen found that support for welfare was inversely related to religious “in-group” giving. On an international scale, welfare programs are strongest in nations where atheists are more common. Since state welfare dwarfs charitable giving, even in countries with small welfare states such as the United States, the result is that the least religious countries also have the highest flow of wealth from the rich to the poor and the smallest wealth inequality. This effect also maps onto overseas aid donations. According to data gathered in 2005 by Foreign Policy magazine, private individuals in the United States are the most generous in the world, every day giving six cents to foreigners in need compared with a meager one cent given daily by each Dane. Factor in government donations, however, and it’s a different story. The U.S. government gave fifteen cents on behalf of each citizen, but the Danish government gave ninety cents per capita. Put private and public giving together, and Denmark—one of the least religious countries in the world—is clearly the far more generous nation.

There are a few philosophical issues which this contrast raises.

One of the arguments conservatives often make against relying on state-mediated generosity in the form of welfare programs of various stripes is that this depersonalizes charity and either hinders or fails to cultivate personal charitableness and to foster interpersonal connections through personal charitable interactions. Another argument conservatives make is that state-mediated giving is a form of unjust coerced giving, rather than a morally noble voluntary giving.

And since conservatives seem to reflexively assume a significant proportion of the recipients of state-mediated charity are gaming the system, presumably they have more confidence that the church-based and other voluntary giving that they trumpet in its place is less subject to scamming. Presumably this might be because of an assumption that private individuals and organizations would be in a better position to hold other individuals accountable than impersonal and systematic bureaucracies are.

Or possibly the conservative does not assume private individuals and organizations are better at holding their charity’s recipients more accountable but because they reason that getting screwed over on some occasions as a private giver is a morally acceptable risk for someone already getting the intrinsic reward of doing a properly motivated, generous deed, whereas ripoffs of the government just compound the existing injustice in the seizure of property in the form of taxes in the first place.

Or, finally, maybe conservatives assume that the advantage of private charity efforts is not that the charities can hold recipients accountable but individuals can hold bad charities accountable better than they can fix a systematically broken bureaucracy. Further, conservatives see all bureaucracies as self-perpetuating such that they do not contract when need diminishes but inefficiently expand under all circumstances, they see them as inherently less flexible than private ventures, and at their most conspiratorial, they may see welfare bureaucracies as having a greater interest in perpetuating the need which keeps them in power than in reducing dependency.

And conservatives seem to worry that the government will show poorer judgment (or at least judgment contrary to their own) in discerning who is deserving of what kind of aid and how it is best delivered. In such cases, they find it morally objectionable that the government would seize people’s property to give it out in a way contrary to what their own discretion would.

And, along these lines, they may even be completely underwhelmed to learn about the relative lack of income disparity in socialist European utopias like Denmark because they think the vast income disparity in America is deserved and due to a fundamentally just system which rewards or not according to a morally fairer correlation to the virtues of innovation, determination, hard work, foresight, venturousness, and productivity.

Finally, many highly religious Christian conservatives, and irreligious conservatives who nonetheless see religion as a more useful institution than government for social control, deeply desire that the desperation of the destitute or emotionally wracked be turned into an opportunity for religious conversion. They want their charitable giving to be tightly associated with their faith so that they can win souls and so that they can condition support on religious instruction or devotion (whether this happens through explicit means or through more implicit and subtler, softer-sell tactics, this ulterior motive frequently lurks in the evangelizing Christian’s love of the poor and emotionally needy).

Secular resources which come with no dogmatic strings attached crowd out the evangelists’ turf and give the poor and otherwise needy options that let them evade attempts to Christianize their souls as a condition of the help they get. Some religious conservatives may even see this as a further reason to dislike government-based support: it does not come with Christian moralizing or religious demands which they would think constitute a more holistic, disciplining, morally improving, and accountability-fostering approach to charity.

And, finally, on this score, sometimes the religious refuse people their legally entitled rights to self-determination altogether by denying them certain forms of care that the religious institution administering a public good finds objectionable. See egregious, dogmatically justified moral impositions of the Roman Catholic Church on patients in the care of their hospitals (one salient example of which I commented upon extensively in the two posts, Legalism Over Life: Nun Supports Life-Saving Abortion And Gets Excommunicated and Moral Actions, Moral Sentiments, Moral Motives, and Moral Justifications: More On The Nun Excommunicated For Approving A Life-Saving Abortion).

In light of Rees’s observations and these speculations about the logic of virulent opposition to state-mediated generosity on the right wing, I want to offer a few thoughts on the ethics of generosity and of the positions I have just developed.

First, I obviously do not want the desperate to be compelled with no other options to take sanctuary in the churches where the condition of aid is either a soft or hard sell that they buy into religious falsehoods and poorly formed moral beliefs and spiritual practices. For this reason alone, before any other considerations, I think the guarantee of secular, systematic, religiously-neutral institutions is a vital protector of the freedom of conscience for the most vulnerable in society.

The most vulnerable need access to democratically controlled, egalitarian institutions they can turn to which restrict their advice and tactics to those approved by the standards of medicine and social science, and not be subject to the potential ignorance and recklessness of faith-based beliefs, moralities, and spiritualities because they have no other options. The vulnerable need secular, democratically controlled institutions which aim to solve their specific needs which lead them to need help, rather than be subject to possible ulterior motives of exploiting their weakness for manipulation of their souls.

But, beyond this concern, I think there are several others to reject the conservative view of generosity. I do not think that mutual support through the government has to alienate us from one another. I am very happy to pay my taxes and support the endeavors of creating a prosperous, technologically advanced, and just country. While government inefficiencies are lamentable and should obviously be minimized, collective investments in education, health care, scientific research, support for the poor, which reduce the unnecessarily enormous and shamefully growing income gap in the country creates a world of far greater opportunity and overall flourishing than a system that allows a few to horde all the resources.

I understand the value of capitalism and free markets, I really do. I am all for wealth generation. I am just not for wealth consolidation. I am a fiscal pragmatist and do not want the government to try to do anything the free market could do better and more justly but I also am not a free market absolutist and I recognize that there are some moral goods that only the government can provide better and more justly because it can do so more systematically.

And, honestly, I would rather pay more in taxes than have to give a dime to charity out of my own pocket. This is not because I want to be uncharitable. I’ll pay the taxes willingly and even vote for them willingly. But I want an efficiently just country, not one where people are left to the wolves so that I have to do the painful, inefficient, and time consuming task of taking care of them when the wolves are done with them.

While I am enough of a social libertarian to fear the government when it violates the 4th and 5th Amendments (which is all the time these days) and to be vigilant that it uphold the 1st Amendment, and while I do not trust its every intention or action in its militaristic, imperialistic foreign policy—I do not see the government as alien from myself when it is assuring that my neighbors have unemployment checks, when it is subsidizing the educations of disadvantaged kids, when it is offering to expand health care access to 30 million more people.

Of course we need the most efficient means possible and I do not claim the left is right about every instance where it assumes a government solution is a better one than a private one.

But what I want to address is the ethical question. I want to say that it is not inherently more virtuous to have a system designed to function on market whims as a matter of principle. If the freest market leads to the biggest tide which naturally lifts all boats as a pragmatic consequence, then it is justifiable. But if the lesson of Denmark is that a more robust welfare state accompanied by much higher taxes on those who can afford them leads to diminished income disparity and diminished social ills, then this would be clearly the morally best option.

This is because the consequence of increased overall flourishing is a far better moral good in itself than that individuals get more opportunities to privately pity and take care of their fellow man when this is less efficient and runs all sorts of risks of subjecting the vulnerable to people’s private exploitation or manipulation of their souls. In this way, I share a good deal of Nietzsche’s desire to avoid pitying and dehumanizing personal dynamics with others in which they have to beg of me and be dependent on me and in which my pleasure at helping comes at their expense in needing help.

I am happy to give time and love to those I love as an equal or those whose excellence I am helping them to develop. But I would rather the humiliation of need be met in ways which did not force people to beg of me at their most destitute. I would rather a system which kept them out of destitution in the first place as much as possible, which gave genuine opportunities in education, well funded hospitals for all the mentally ill who now live on the street, guarantees of medical attention for the sick, etc.

I would rather pay for that and run the risk that should I ever become a multi-millionaire I have to pay a lot for it. I do not see the loss of the personal virtue of generosity in this. There are many other, more ennobling and more efficient contexts in which to be generous one on one. And, more importantly, greater generosity seeks greater net efficiency, like the kind Rees cites in Denmark by contrast with the USA, rather than more opportunities to feel personally efficacious or more opportunities to sit as the judge of who deserves and who does not.

I think I can just as charitably vote as donate when my vote is for higher taxes for a more just society. I do not think that capitalistic free market income distribution divvies up either wealth or resources in the most morally fair ways at all. There is more to value than market value. Insofar as allowing market values to dominate is efficient for making a more prosperous world, they should dominate the economy.

But insofar as allowing market values to determine other goods is detrimental to other goods of human flourishing—to art, to individual health, to education, etc.—moral values need to be represented as well as economic values, even if it means some restraint on overall material prosperity if it means genuine increases for the worst off or for other cultural values.

There is no intrinsic virtue or duty however to honor market values as the only moral determinant of dessert. You do not always morally deserve only exactly what a free market determines you do. Neither our contributions to society nor our intrinsic worths as individual humans are always (or even often) properly compensated by the free market. There is no reason in government to make market values the sole determiner of who gets what. Taxes which allow that morally defensible goods get funded do not rob from those who deserve what they earn, but, when they are just, they correct for the necessary evil relativistic market value in ways that allow other, unprofitable values (and short-term but not long-term unprofitable values) of equal or greater importance to thrive too.

Of course, to the extent that taxing and otherwise meddling with free market values has a net effect of damaging other objectively valuable things, then the greater good is served by deferring to free market priorities.

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