Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Charity and the State: A Christian Libertarian Perspective

Charity and the State: A Christian Libertarian Perspective
Anand Venigalla

Thanks to my dad and to C. Jay Engel for his helpful suggestions. I know this essay will not be able to cover in fullest detail a moral, Christian, and libertarian case against the welfare state. Many have went into further detail and there are things beyond the scope of this essay. And I may even go further in future essays, speeches, and even books if I could. But this essay is intended to give a rough case against welfare statism and for purely voluntary charity.


Charity and the welfare state has been a controversial topic throughout the history of mankind. Since mankind is tainted (and as we Christians would say, sinful in nature), one is not always charitable towards others. So, as is commonly asserted and as we are all told, the State should step in and participate in the business of charity. It is also held that the State accomplishes this through taxation and legislation. Some even say that "charity begins with the government" rather than with individuals giving from their heart.

This essay is dedicated to debunking these false claims from the standpoint of true charity, particularly from the Christian standpoint, and of the politics of the libertarian (which I hold to be fundamentally compatible with Christianity). It does not reject charity at all; far from it, in rejecting state welfare, I am defending true and voluntary charity, which is both from the heart and is also productive, in contrast to the method of the welfare state that takes money from one group to give to another group which often times is exploited.

For Private Charity and Against Statism

Private charity, as opposed to welfare statism, is the best course to go for these reasons:

1. The system of private and voluntary charity is the most moral and non-coercive form of goodwill exercised by men; the state, as it is an involuntary and inherently coercive entity, cannot really give of its own in the same way a person can give from the heart; it must take from others to be charitable, and this is often done through legislation and taxation. The Scriptures commend charity from the heart, and with good conscience. The State cannot operate in the same way, no matter the claims that state rulers might make in the name of humanitarianism. Jesus, when he commanded the rich young ruler to sell all that he had (Matthew 19:16-22), did not advocate the state taking the man's funds and redistributing them to the poor. Neither did commands to help the poor and needy in any way involve coercive welfare by the State. This same truth can also be seen in the ministry of the early church; even the sharing of goods in the Church though it seems "communistic" (Acts 4:32-37) was purely voluntary and non-coercive. All this is to say that defenders of compulsory charity who seek to use Christianity to defend force cannot depend on early Christianity to do so, and that the Christians who reject force have a stronger basis in this area.

2. Private charity, because it is done by individual human beings, is personal and oftentimes from the heart. It is true that sometimes the charity giver might have selfish and non-altruistic means. But even with this consideration, as opposed to state charity, private charity has the component of a personal and voluntary exchange that the statist variety does not have. Thus, it is mutually beneficial for one another, with the giver receiving the contentment of giving, and the receiver of the charity having a grateful heart for the goodwill offered to him. Not to mention the above process involves evaluating one's true need and extent of it, so there is little or no exploitation of the giver, resulting in a process of relationship building and setting an example to the others to follow. State charity, on the other hand, often involves the taking of goods and services from one individual to redistribute it to other individual. Oftentimes, this is based on a "Santa Claus" principle where the State takes from those who are "better off" to give to those who are "underprivileged." However, this is false and wrong, and as the economist Ludwig von Mises showed when he refuted this principle, "[f]rom day to day it becomes more obvious that large-scale additions to the amount of public expenditure cannot be financed by “soaking the rich,” but that the burden must be carried by the masses. The traditional tax policy of the age of interventionism, its glorified devices of progressive taxation and lavish spending, have been carried to a point at which their absurdity can no longer be concealed. The notorious principle that, whereas private expenditures depend on the size of income available, public revenues must be regulated according to expenditures, refutes itself."

Arguments In Favor Of Welfare Statism

Having defended my case against compulsory charity, I will lay down some arguments that will be used for defending it. These proponents do not necessarily reject the need for non-coercive charity, but rather they hold that the State is necessary in charity work. I will deal with some (but not all) of their arguments and lay them out as accurately as possible.

1. Without compulsory legislation requiring people to be charitable, people will become too selfish and greedy to care for the helpless in society. This argument is common among many groups, including some conservatives. The basis is that since libertarianism allegedly holds that men are living "islands," they obviously are going to reject compulsory charity in the name of individualism. Then they might concede that libertarians may not be atomistic, but then they argue that if libertarians really cared about the poor and helpless in society, then they would support laws that would tax people in the name of welfare, progressive taxation, forcing the rich to "give back to society," all of which are but a few examples of the welfare state's manifestation.

2. Even if private charity were more efficient, it can get too self-centered and can turn into a thing of greed. If a defender of the welfare state does concede that private charity is more efficient than the welfare state, he might later say that private charity can get too self-centered and that it will turn into some business thing, which is not good at all, according to these people. They hold that the state's performing of charity usually prevents this. They argue that the poor and needy might become "pawns" within the "evil" free market, which is (as we are all told falsely and through exaggeration) allegedly the "cause of our economic and social woes."

3. Without a welfare state, people would be dying on the streets. This is common amongst left-wing social democrats, right-wing welfare Statists, Catholics, and socially-democratic evangelicals. They hold that, since people will become too selfish without state compulsion, then they will not help the poor and needy,- nod thus people will be dying while the affluent live and prosper. And thus they support the welfare state based on this argumentation.

Responses to These Arguments For The Welfare State

1.  People have more incentive to be charitable under a free order than under the order of statism. In response to the first argument that says that without government welfare people would become uncharitable, I would say this: There is much more incentive to be truly charitable under the order of the free society rather than in the statist society. Why is this? With voluntary charity rather than coerced charity, people would not feel like they were forced to provide for a person. Also, in a free society, ways would be found with which to provide better care and charity, and charities would prop up and fill the needs and demands that are common in a free society. A historical example would be the charitable institutions that rose up in the nineteenth century, the century of classical liberalism. Groups such as The Salvation Army and many other Christian groups came up during this era, the era of liberalization of economic laws and laissez-faire markets. Philanthropy became popular among such wealthy persons as Andrew Carnegie, John Ruskin, Henry Dunant and many others. And finally, may I add, private charity often lifts poor people out of their state and helps them to get on their feet so that they will no longer need the charitable assistance, for because of the help, they are now able to get back on their feet.

2. Even if people were greedy and self-centered (meaning that people did charity for selfish purposes), that may be superior to a welfare state system that neglects some and helps some. Let's say that indeed rich people and the well-to-do in a free society are indeed performing charitable deeds for selfish and profit-based motives. But given that fact, poor people and the needy are being provided for, and in fact they are now able to return to the productive sector and help themselves through producing and creating goods and services that please customers and help others. Thus, while the poor and needy may be "pawns" in this system, at least we grant that they are being helped by these selfish people, whereas in the welfare system they might either be neglected, receive inferior care, might become permanently attached to it, or might be deceived into thinking that the State, not the free market, is the harborer of all that is good and that the market is always (or at least mostly) wrong and selfish, and that without the State they wouldn't survive. 

3. The welfare state is corrupt and more so than a free society; it is often (not always) based on the desire for legalized theft and reception of welfare without production and labor. I will make a statement that will be controversial among many people, including many Christians: the welfare state is legalized theft, an embodiment of legitimized corruption and exploitative usage of materials to provide money for the poor and needy (and make money for itself in the process). How dare I say this! Surely we must endure some form of legalized theft (assuming that welfare statism is precisely that) or else society will descend into chaos! This sounds oh-so reasonable on the surface; after all, do we not want order and for the poor to be taken care of? But let me give this example to prove the Statists wrong: suppose Robin Hood and his merry men become concerned about the poor in society, and they see that they are without proper care and food and shelter. But there is no one bothering to help them, for there are many who are concerned with their own affairs in life more than they are for the poor. So they go to Prince John and ask him to take money (through taxation) from the rich people who make money through the market process but don't give to the poor. Then Prince John puts the requests of the band into action, and the band becomes his agents of taxation. So they start to take money from the rich men through taxation, at times through threats of death if it is resisted. It seems that the poor and needy are getting alone fine in this system; they seem to be provided for and they are nowhere near the level they suffered. But then the taxation mandate extends beyond the rich and goes to everyone; so while it seems to benefit the poor in the short run, in the long run it is a failure. The poor and needy do not go off of welfare, the citizens are increasingly taxed to support the system and the entrepreneurial and charitable spirits suffer as a result. 

This illustration is designed to show the failure of a welfare-state system as opposed to a free society.

Conclusion: Private Charity Is The Only Christian Charity.

All these facts are ultimately hogwash to the Christian unless he is convinced of the truth that the private-charity system I am proposing is the only one compatible with the Scriptures and the New Testament, as well as the only one compatible with the free society. The use of compulsory force to collect donations for the poor and needy is immoral, for it not only forces a person to do something against his will in the name of positive law, but it removes the mutual benefits of charity that are common (and should be) in private charity. A trust is built between the giver and the receiver(s), and the welfare system removes this trust by taking from a productive member of society and giving to a non-productive member, thus deceiving the receiver from entering into the productive sector. And the New Testament command to be charitable is not a command for the State to come in and take money to give to the poor but rather a command to individuals and Christians to give from their hearts (2 Corinthians 9:7) and follow Christ in this way. And the charity practiced by the early Christians is in stark contrast to the welfare statism of modern-day America and much of the Western world today. They gave of themselves and did not think of themselves first of all, but they considered others better than themselves and looked out for their interests (Philippians 2:3-4), in stark contrast to the ambivalence of paganism. These men and women did not seek to use coercion and force to perform their deeds, but rather they did it voluntarily from their heart. This charity is truly Christian, not the compulsory welfare-state's corruption of charity.

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