Sunday, April 19, 2009

Query: Can charity exist in this era of “entitlement”?

Charity, from the Latin caritas, means to act without self-interest, to act disinterestedly for the good of others.

Charity by definition is unmerited; no one is entitled to the disinterested beneficence of another. Because God has shown unmerited love toward them, Jews and Christians are commanded to show charity to others.

Intentionally or not, the federal government since FDR’s administration has critically undermined the concept of charity. First, it has re-characterized any need as deserving of alleviation. During the Great Depression, FDR’s administration was careful to characterize its massive, redistributive programs as “entitlements” rather than charity: if you were willing to work, you were entitled to a job; if you had worked most of your life, you were entitled to a retirement income (i.e., social security). LBJ’s “Great Society” programs in the late sixties extrapolated this notion of entitlement, suggesting merit, to any need. If you need food, you are entitled to it; if you need housing, you are entitled to it; if you need medical care, you are entitled to it. Hence, food stamps, low-income housing, and Medicaid.

Second, the federal government since FDR’s administration has undermined the concept of charity by increasingly substituting government programs for private charitable enterprise. Individual citizens no longer need to seek ways to show charity, to alleviate the suffering of others—government does it for us. Those of us who support such government efforts feel a certain self-congratulation: we are charitable by proxy. We pay our taxes, and government does the rest.

Two problems: First, we set up what in formal debate is known as a “straw man”: the notion that those who do not support such government efforts are un-charitable—they are selfish and greedy; they have no desire to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, etc. Second, while moral benefit certainly accrues to those who give of their resources to help others, no such benefit accrues to those who force someone else to use his resources to help others. Voting to increase taxation on others to fund government redistributive programs confers no moral benefit on the voter.

Avenues for further exploration: 1) the moral effect of entitlement on recipients of assistance; 2) whether supporting government redistributive programs causes moral harm to the voter.