Libertarians, Welfare and Private Charities: Why Haven’t They?

A still from Major Barbara (1941).

I’ve written a little about the fact that my best friend in my teen years was a libertarian, and I thought I was, too. One of his go-to arguments for abolishing welfare was that private charities and churches would step up to fill the gap. At the time, I rolled my eyes at his naivete but had nothing to say. Now I do (and I’m still rolling my eyes, Sven).

If private charities and churches are standing ready and willing to replace welfare, why haven’t they done it yet?

  • It’s not taxes holding them back. Both charities and churches are tax-exempt.
  • It’s not because no one needs their help. Churchgoers regularly pass homeless people on the street, but the most help they offer is a sandwich and an invitation to meet Jesus.
  • It’s not because the government is standing in their way. There are no laws against charitable giving. There are no laws against taking in and feeding strangers.
  • It’s not because they don’t have the resources. Evangelical mega-churches can pull in more than $5 million annually. And that’s with evangelical Christians tithing only 4% of their income.

So what’s the obstacle?

Libertarians: If you want private charities and churches to step in and save the families you kick off welfare, why haven’t they begun? Why is anyone on welfare at all, if private individuals, churches and charities are waiting with open arms? Why aren’t churchgoers going out into the street and gathering up all the homeless people, offering to pay their rent and medical bills and help them find jobs (or better yet, employ them themselves)?

I suspect it’s because libertarians know that human altruism is never strong enough to eradicate poverty. If it was, we’d have done it already, many times over. When libertarians trot out private charities and churches as the obvious sources of aid for a welfare-free society, what they’re doing is plugging the hole in their sinking argument because it’d be just too crass to say, “Let them eat cake.”

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  • Rebecca Trotter

    I always remind myself (and them) that before food stamps, there were people starving in America. Before social security, old people were the poorest segment of the population and ate cat food to survive. The idea that we can all pull together and take care of each other needs to be worked towards, but the reality is we had starving people and old people eating cat food in the wealthiest country the world has ever known. When your theory only works in theory, it doesn’t work.

  • Paula G V aka Yukimi

    Even if charities could erradicate welfare, I still think in an excellent society people should have the rights to a minimum of things just because they are human beings and not because of charity. that is that if someone can’t work because of an accident, that person receives money and help because it’s hir right and not because poor poor zie, we are going to give you the scraps of the table but only if we think you are worthy enough. I know charity isn’t most times like that but that’s how many people who need charity feel. As a disclaimer I think charities and NGO’s do great work but I think they should complement a national system.

    • Paul Sunstone

      I agree societies should guarantee their members the basic necessities of life, Paula. At least, to the extent that is economically possible. After all, we’re a social animal. Our species has not survived this long because it had the most powerful muscles, the biggest teeth, or the sharpest claws. We have survived because we work cooperatively, as a community. And part of the price for being a community is taking care of the least fortunate among us as a community.

    • Kevin McKee

      The government can’t give something to someone unless they take it from someone else. No one has a right to food, because that would mean that the person who owns the food doesn’t have a right to his or her property. No one has a right to medical care, because that means a doctor doesn’t have a right to his own time and a hospital doesn’t have a right to their equipment. Our fundamental rights are those to life, liberty (the ability to do what we want as long as it doesn’t harm others), and property.

      No other “rights” can exist in a free society.

  • sribop101

    I’d say the biggest reason charities aren’t doing as much as they could is because the impression is that people are already being taken care of by the government. Altruism works best when people feel like people in need have nowhere (or almost nowhere) to go. That’s why government is the culprit in this respect.

    Of course, we would hardly even need welfare if we got rid of all the impediments to job creation. If you get rid of the minimum wage, all the exorbitant taxation, the cumbersome regulations, licensing, etc, finding a job and making at least some sort of living would be a real prospect for just about everyone.

    A belief in government welfare is immoral. As I brought up in my latest blog post, “It’s wrong for a drifter to put a gun to my head and take $100 dollars out of my pocket for food. And yet, a man dressed in a blue costume with a gun would be perfectly justified in doing so. The inevitable question proceeds: why? What makes one forceful taking of money fundamentally different from the other? I have yet to hear an adequate response from a statist.”

    • Sierra

      The job then is to correct their impressions rather than remove the safety net and hope they get their act together.

      “Altruism works best when people feel like people in need have nowhere (or almost nowhere) to go.” Tell that to the thousands of starving children we had in this country during the Industrial Revolution, when there was no minimum wage and kids died in their teens from working in coal mines. Those people had nowhere to go – where were the churches and charities then? Certainly not up to the task.

      What you list as impediments to job creation are laughable. Minimum wage? REALLY?? The only employers “hurt” by minimum wage are the ones who want to pay their employees
      under the poverty line.
      If you can’t create jobs that allow people to support themselves, you shouldn’t be in business.

      Those regulations? They’re things like “not dumping radioactive substances and poisonous chemicals into reservoirs.” Believe me, you don’t want to live in a world without regulated business.

      Belief in government WITHOUT welfare is immoral. Your example is poor because it’s watered down to one encounter, and the world doesn’t work that way. First, tell me why you have $100 and he needs to rob you to eat. Let’s imagine that you’re a middle-class average worker with a bachelor’s degree. First of all, you benefited from child labor laws that enabled you to go to school rather than work to support your family from age 7. Second, you had enough time to complete your homework to have the minimum necessary GPA to graduate. Then you were able to apply for college because your family didn’t require you to work to support them or kick you out. You had time to complete your college studies, which means you didn’t have to work more than 1 job. You either had (a) time enough to do well enough in high school to get a full ride, (b) family helping you out directly or through a trust fund or by co-signing loans for you, or (c) government grants and loans. No 18 year old has independently earned the $16,153 it takes for one year (on average) of state college tuition. Afterwards you were lucky enough to find a job in an economy with 16.4% unemployment for young graduates.

      So you walk around carrying all those advantages, thinking you made that $100 appear out of thin air, and condemn the guy who didn’t have any of those chances and needs to actually rob you because he’s starving. THAT is immoral.

      (Edit: Besides, even if there were jobs available for everybody who is currently on welfare, a significant number of them would still be too old or too young to work, ill physically or mentally, or disabled and unable to work. There is no such thing as a society in which everyone is capable of work, even if it is available.)

    • Petticoat Philosopher

      Pretty much said everything, I was going to say, Sierra. Any employers that minimum wage laws discourage should not be employers at all! As it is, minimum wage in most places is so low that poor people with families frequently have to work 2 or 3 jobs just to make ends meet (feeding their kids crappy convenience food because that’s all they have time for, unable to be involved in their kids school life etc. and then getting blamed by a bunch of sanctimonious conservatives when their kids have health problems and obesity and fail academically. Woohoo! USA!) It’s not like not having minimum wage or any other protective regulations would be some kind of grand, never-before-tried experiment. We already tried it. And we as a society decided that the results were morally unacceptable.

      On my Irish/Cornish side (the side that’s actually been in America for quite a while), I am descended from a long line of miners and menial laborers. I’ve had ancestors who were killed in mines, others who were disabled for life, and it was sink or swim for their families, no charity, no help. My great-grandfather–who lost his father–spent his childhood doing dangerous work in Upper Peninsula copper mines in the freezing cold (the UP gets COLD!) He couldn’t even graduate high school because the British army (he emigrated as a child so he was still a British subject) would pay him and going to school would not. It was World War I and they needed bodies. Some charity!

      When my own grandpa was growing up, his family DID receive some charity food from their local Catholic parish when the going got really tough–enough to keep them living, nothing that would actually help them get out of poverty. You know what finally did that? That big, fat government hand-out known as the GI Bill, which paid for my grandfather’s education and allowed my dad and his siblings to be first middle-class generation in their family. Thanks, evil government!

    • Liberated Liberal

      Amen, Sierra and Petticoat Philosopher.

    • Lee

      Also, as to what the churches were doing at the time? A huge part of the movement towards social welfare and minimum wage, etc, was the “social gospel” Christians, who lived as Jesus taught and worked and advocated for the poor. They did run charities, but they also voted and organized for social reform. They saw (rightly) government as an entity that could fix the horrible problems they were seeing. There were (and still are) a lot of small charities dedicated to helping the bad off. But it wasn’t enough.

  • ScottInOH

    sribop101, do you really believe there should be zero taxes? If not, why do you think the taxes you support are just? If so, are you prepared to live in a failed state? That is the likely real-world result of trying to create a libertarian paradise.

  • sribop101

    “The job then is to correct their impressions rather than remove the safety net and hope they get their act together.”
    The way you correct these impressions is by removing its cause – government. You’re just proposing a perpetuation of the system where this impression is still intact.

    Wow, your understanding of the industrial revolution is completely warped. At the time, the general population struggled to put food on the table. Private charities had very little money on hand as well. Since society was so undeveloped, we needed kids working. Would you rather have them starve? Your view of the industrial revolution neglects so many facts and specifics about the actual state of affairs back then.

    I see government schools have gotten the best of you. No, we don’t need the minimum wage – prices are always best determined by the market. The minimum wage sets a benchmark many employers aren’t able to overcome, making hiring difficult and leaving many unemployed. I realize you’d rather have people collecting unemployment checks than actually working.

    There shouldn’t be any regulations. Obviously, people shouldn’t be allowed to violate property rights or engage in fraud. But forcing employers through a convoluted, never ending process of paperwork? Any idea of the cost of all that to the private sector? It’s huge.

    The reason most people don’t work at a young age isn’t because of child labor laws – it’s because our society has progressed to a state of development in which it is no longer necessary. And if it is necessary for those living in extreme poverty, LET THEM WORK. I’d rather a family be able to put food on the table than go hungry.

    I don’t need government for any of the things you listed. You conclude by saying my view is immoral because I don’t support money forcefully being taken from me. Are you serious? Theft is always wrong. Unfortunately you don’t seem to agree with that statement.

    • Sierra

      You correct those impressions by placing the burden of education on the people with the power to correct the situation. You do realize that your entire argument is that the poor don’t seem poor enough to rich folks, don’t you? Do you have any idea how degrading and inhuman that is? What do you want, groveling in the street? Cancer victims dying on your doorstep for want of treatment? Nearly 50 million Americans live in poverty and the rich are willfully blind to them. It’s not the job of the poor to make themselves look worthy, because “worthy” is a value judgment made by narcissists. It’s the job of government AND private citizens to make sure that we live in a just society.

      Second, YOU have an extremely warped understanding of history in general. There is no such thing as progress without a cause. I assure you, without child labor laws, children would be working. How do I know? Because they ARE working illegally right now. I know this because I was such a child myself – and yes, it interfered with my education. I gave you facts and specifics enough when I told you that CHILDREN WERE DYING IN COAL MINES AND FACTORIES in the 19th century to keep their families fed. Society didn’t “need” that. It never needs that.

      Government schools? I was homeschooled in a conservative Republican household. Try again.

      “The minimum wage sets a benchmark many employers aren’t able to overcome, making hiring difficult and leaving many unemployed. I realize you’d rather have people collecting unemployment checks than actually working.”
      If they can’t afford to pay minimum wage, they should not be in business. I stand by this statement. Your second claim is baseless. I would rather have people NOT WORKING FOR FREE. You would rather have employers hire kids for less than a dollar an hour. Capitalism exists to generate profit, and it’s no secret to many, many employers that cutting wages generates profit. I would rather have companies sink and others take their place than allow them to exploit workers for less than their due. (By the way, guess who thinks they decide what workers are due? Capitalist business owners who pay as little as they can get away with on principle.)

      Cry me a river about the cost to the “private sector.” What about the cost of deregulation to the OTHER private sector – the home, where uninsured parents die and leave behind children who end up in foster care and eventually on the street? You seriously want me to have more sympathy for the profit margins of Verizon and Walmart than for kids eating nothing but chips and hotdogs because their parents can’t find work enough to buy vegetables?

      You don’t need government for what? The things I listed are basic requirements for a middle class salary in this economy. If you don’t need help meeting them, it’s because somebody has already helped you. But don’t you DARE assume everyone has access to the same resources you do.

      Self-preservation is not immoral. Theft for self-preservation is not immoral. Withholding the means to survive IS immoral.

    • ScottInOH

      sribop101, have you ever lived anywhere where there aren’t any effective regulations? They aren’t pristine oases where everyone has a privately owned source of crystal clear drinking water. They’re hell-holes where life expectancy is 20 years below the industrial world’s average if you’re lucky. A society without any sort of government looks like Lord of the Flies. Or Somalia.

    • Petticoat Philosopher

      “Since society was so undeveloped, we needed kids working. Would you rather have them starve?”

      I’D have rather had their parents paid enough so that their kids didn’t have to go to work alongside them when they were 8, like many children in many places STILL have to do today. We “needed” kids working because “society was so undeveloped?” What does this even mean? Do you think that their wouldn’t have been enough workers otherwise? HAHAHAHA!!! Right, only the starving Irish pouring into the country during the industrial revolution, desperate for any work that anybody would give them. Only the scads of immigrants from all over pouring into American cities (as well as loads of rural migrants) between 1880 and 1920 every bit as desperate. Believe me, there was never a shortage of adults to perform the backbreaking labor this country owes its development to. What there was was a complete lack of anything stopping employers from paying them peanuts so that their kids would HAVE to work just to keep the family afloat. Until the Progressive era reformers and labor leaders took a stand and made this society a more civilized place.

      And YOU are lecturing others about history? Seriously?

      It’s not a choice between people and their children working for poverty wages and starving. It’s a choice between people working for poverty wages or working for living wages. It’s a choice we always had, it’s a choice we have now.

    • Christine

      “There shouldn’t be any regulations. Obviously, people shouldn’t be allowed to violate property rights or engage in fraud.”

      sribop101, I suggest you read these 2 sentences YOU wrote again. Your second contradicts your first – if there WERE no regulations, the unscrupulous would be allowed to violate property rights and engage in fraud a lot more than they can with regulations.

      “…prices are always best determined by the market.”
      Perhaps you need to come to Australia then, where a lot of food producers are being driven out of business. Why? Our food distribution system is dominated by 2 major supermarket chains, who use their market power to drive down the prices they pay to producers to increase their own profit. And by the way, this reduced cost is certainly not passed down to consumers.

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  • sribop101

    ScottInOH, I believe in anarcho-capitalism, or a capitalist system in the absence of the State. Of course, comparing a completely undeveloped nation like Somalia with first world countries is just being deceitful – how about comparing it to the rest of Africa? Great intellectual integrity.

    Sierra, I could write out a huge, detailed response to all your points but it would be an enormous waste of time. Until we can come to the agreement that forcefully extracting money (through taxation) is immoral, I won’t be able to change your mind. Unfortunately you’ve been convinced so strongly of the necessity of a government that you’ll hastily brush aside the moral dilemma. You’ll tell yourself there’s nothing wrong with taking someone’s property, or forcing people to conform to the wants and desires of the State. Until you cross that threshold and stand up against these violations of basic, moral principles that you and I both follow in our daily lives, we won’t get anywhere.

    Anyway, thanks for the debate – it was fun. I strongly encourage you to keep an open mind to these ideas, although I realize it’s a futile request. Remember, my political beliefs used to be just like yours. But once I stopped regurgitation government dogma and thinking independently, I came around. I hope someday you will too.

    • Lucreza Borgia

      Why do you think Sierra believes this because the government told her to? Is it impossible to believe this on one’s own?

      We pay taxes for things we all get in return. I’m OK with that. Not everyone believes it to be theft.

    • ScottInOH

      There’s nothing deceitful about my comparison. Show me a large, industrialized country with no government. No state means a dog-eat-dog world, quite literally. It’s not pretty.

      Does this mean you believe there should be no taxes at all?

    • ScottInOH

      (Sorry, not sure if there’s an edit function.) If there are no taxes, who enforces your rights to your property? Who says it’s yours in the first place, and what happens if someone disagrees?

    • Redgirl

      Do you really think that if the state went away no one else would come in and fill that power vacuum? Look at any country whose government has fallen and you will see warlords stepping in and…guess what? Taking people’s property and forcing them to conform! You have this notion that in the absence of government, people will peacefully come together to solve societal ills. Well, sometimes they do, and they have always found the best way to do that by forming a government. Our founding fathers kicked out the monarchy, but they replaced it with a government that did have powers of taxation, and that was done for a good purpose. If you have no government to protect your rights then, in effect, you have no rights at all.

  • Paul Sunstone

    What an excellent post! I couldn’t agree with the OP more. Thank you, Sierra!

    By the way, I think it was Spinoza who was the first, or among the first, Western thinkers to point out that private charity was inadequate when dealing with the poor, and to argue on those and other grounds for the state to intervene.

  • sribop101

    Unfortunately, I don’t have time to address all the mindless, regurgitated misconceptions that have been presented here. It’s been a pleasure everyone.

    • Sierra

      Glad to know you won’t be adding any more to the pile.

    • Paul Sunstone

      “…I don’t have time to address all the mindless, regurgitated misconceptions that have been presented here.”

      It’s odd you don’t have the time to address them. After all, you certainly had the time to present them.

  • Petticoat Philosopher

    The other problem with relying on charity for everything is that it’s totally inefficient. Relying on the charitable whims of individuals would never, ever result in everybody’s needs getting met, even if all those individuals were acting in good faith.

    A friend of an ex of mine is one of the few libertarians that I’ve met who really puts his money where his mouth is, literally and figuratively. He served in the peace corps for 2 years, donates to charity all the time, and has been working to start a charity of his own to send poor kids in the country he served in to school. He’s a genuinely compassionate and altruistic person and he’s also naive enough to be a libertarian because he genuinely doesn’t understand that other people aren’t as compassionate and altruistic as he is.

    But what if they were? All the good will in the world does not mean that people will know where the need is and how best to meet it. Even in a society where everyone is willing to give, if we just let everyone support society in the way they personally see fit, we’d probably get plenty of resources going to causes that involve cute kids and cute animals, and not so much for causes that involve less cuteness but are just as important. And who decides how to put those resources to best use? Do libertarians think that’s so easy?

    Understanding where the need is, what the need is, and how best to allocate resources toward it in the most effective way is a JOB that requires deep knowledge, expertise, and time. And it’s the job of the government–part of “promoting the general welfare.” We SHOULD give to charity and work on a local level to make our own communities better places. But we currently live in a huge, complex, unwieldy society and, if we want everyone’s needs to be met in that society, we need an organized system to make sure that happens and people to implement it. It’s not a job for amateurs. It’s a job for dedicated, public servants that we vote for ourselves. If we feel that those public servants are not truly representing the public interest then THAT is the problem, not that they exist. I’ll be the first to complain that our government does not currently represent the public interest. Right now, it represents the corporate interests because they’ve managed to grab the government by the short hairs.

    And they managed that because libertarian anti-regulation types let them. Because tyranny of the government is evil, but tyranny of wealth is just fine.

    Government works better and represents people better when it’s not being run by people who don’t believe in it.

  • Esbee

    Back in 1978 my husband was really sick our car did not work and we had one old horse (a gift from God) for transportation….i had not had a good meal in months and the horse was living off grass in the neighborhood (SHE HAD PLENTY!) …at the time my husband was singing in a group at the 1st Bapt church and being hungry, I asked for some groceries. I offered to work for (any menial job in the church or would pay back later) —they saw we had no furniture and i was 108 lbs and husband sick…i was honest and explained i would not sell a 28 yr old horse as she would only go for dog food and she was a gift from God our only transportation as the car had died…they turned us down flat but still expected that weekly tithe…(how stooopid on me to think these holy people would understand that God would and could work through any need) —this very rich church which was building a family life center at the time. But the old poor folks next door who had very little would share their beans with us…it was then i decided the big rich organized church would not get our tithe to build more useless buildings and saved up our tithe to help those people buy a new washing machine.

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