A Political Defense of Charity

In my column this week, “Charity and Entitlement” (Worldmag.com, February 23, 2011), I examine the relative merits of private (Christian) charity and government entitlement, or what Tocqueville calls “legal charity.”

Some comments on last week’s column, “Obama’s Godly Government,” actually condemned private charity as an evil, and extolled entitlements as superior in both efficiency and humanity.

Said one, “Its the stability of funding from entitlements that allows a recipient to plan ahead, set goals and work his/her way back to independence. Charity is inconsistent, random and in a subtle manner demands an obligation.”

Said another, “Charity ennobles the giver and obligates the recipient. The former is noble while the latter is common. This is the core dynamic of feudalism. Entitlements make possible the orderly transfer of substance to the next generation, whether through inheritance, social contract, or special grant. … The welfare state has been an essential ingredient in moral and material betterment since the passing of the ancien régime.”

Here I let Tocqueville take the ball:

In my column last week, I asserted, “Charity ennobles and enables. Entitlements enslave and incapacitate.” I was echoing Alexis de Tocqueville who, in his “Memoir on Pauperism” (a must-read), argues that legal charity, what we call public welfare or entitlements, “depraves men even more than it impoverishes them.” Private charity involves people in one another’s lives who ordinarily would occupy separate worlds, the giver actively affirming the receiver’s humanity, and the receiver inspired with hope and gratitude. By contrast, attempts by the government to duplicate this relationship inspire resentment in the rich and envy in the poor, while leaving them still rich and poor.

Here I take up the ball myself.

Entitlements are attractive because of their apparent stability as a system of relief in contrast to the comparative unpredictability of private giving. But that is also their danger. As they are institutionalized and made permanent, they incline people to rely on them just as permanently. The widespread cultural habit of people voluntarily helping people in need—carrying them through a period of unemployment, taking care of them in their old age, providing pro bono medical care—unites us with ties of obligation and mutual affection. But the omniprovisional state destroys even natural human ties. Families evaporate. Communities disintegrate. It infantilizes, and even dehumanizes. The brick wall of economic unsustainability that we are beginning to experience is merely adding material constraints on the entitlement way of helping each other to the tragic moral constraints that have been obvious for some time.

Michael Goodwin points to the entitlement attitude behind the public sector union revolt in Wisconsin and other states in this Fox News article which is adapted from something in The New York Post.

The Wisconsin showdown between a determined Republican governor and spoiled public unions is shaping up as a crucial test of state and municipal solvency. But the financial stakes represent only part of the much larger conflict engulfing America. The real war is over the entitlement culture itself. And while government spending is the most visible part, the ultimate issues are the character and fate of our nation.

The most powerful moral refutation of the entitlement regime I have read recently is Charles Murray’s AEI address in 2009, “The Europe Syndrome.” That should be in your must-read pile.

— D.C. Innes is associate professor of politics at The King’s College in NYC.

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