March 16, 2005

Coerced Charity vs. Voluntary Charity

Warren Beatty has suggested that Governor Schwarzenegger raise taxes on the rich:

Schwarzenegger should raise taxes on the California rich and "terminate" his fund-raising and dinners with "the brokers of Wall Street" and the "lobbyists of K Street," Beatty said...

Beatty said Schwarzenegger should lead the rich toward helping California.

"It's called the haves giving a little more to the have nots," he said. "Nobody likes taxes, but everybody likes a peaceful, compassionate, law-abiding, productive, protective society."

Schwarzenegger spokeswoman Vince Sollitto replied Saturday: "Tax and spend rhetoric aside, California needs budget reform because it's not a revenue problem, but a spending problem."

Beatty's comments prompted the posting of these two quotes:

Walter Williams -

Reaching into one's own pocket to assist his fellow man is noble and worthy of praise. Reaching into another person's pocket to assist one's fellow man is despicable and worthy of condemnation.

P.J. O'Rourke -

There is no virtue in compulsory government charity, and there is no virtue in advocating it. A politician who portrays himself as "caring" and "sensitive" because he wants to expand the government’s charitable programs is merely saying that he’s willing to try to do good with other people’s money. Well, who isn’t? And a voter who takes pride in supporting such programs is telling us that he’ll do good with his own money -- if a gun is held to his head.

The referenced website itself contains this quote -

Thomas Sowell -

If you have been voting for politicians who promise to give you goodies at someone else's expense, then you have no right to complain when they take your money and give it to someone else, including themselves.

Coerced "charity" via government taxation has several corrosive effects:

First, it incentivizes citizens to relinquish all personal responsibility to care for or get involved in supporting the needy in their community. After all, "the government" is responsible for doing that.

Second, it assumes that a distant bureaucrat can better judge how to structure the policy designed to meet the true needs of our neighbor whom he has never met. This is the knowledge/information problem raised over the years by both Hayek and Sowell.

Third, the problem in the second example also leads to higher economic costs due to more ineffective programs, continued propagation of such poor policies, and the ability for the programs to be affected by remote sources of power whose self-interest can often be anything but truly helping the needy neighbor.

On the other hand, voluntary charity draws people in through the formation of associations who are willingly bound by the same altruistic purpose. Such voluntary associations end up developing a refined sense of moral responsibility at the individual and group levels. And by teaching people to care and receive the joy and satisfaction that only comes from giving personally, people are touched in emotionally and spiritually powerful ways - and will be more likely to continue to reach out to others.

(E.g., Think back to when your young child first gained an appreciation for the satisfaction that comes from giving to others while expecting nothing in return.)

At a practical level, workers at a local charity will likely either know that neighbor or know people who knew the neighbor personally - allowing them to have valuable information which could determine what would be the most effective course of policy-related action.

To paraphrase Michael Novak, we need to take the time to build up these voluntary associations. Our society will be stronger and more free as a result. And more good things will happen over time.

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Great post! But don't forget how coerced charity also harms the recipient of the charity, because appreciation will soon be replaced with a feeling of entitlement, and the person has less of an incentive to pull himself up by his own bootstraps.

Posted by: AuH2ORepublican at March 16, 2005 5:04 PM

You raise an very important point that is a crucial part of understanding the perverse consequences of coerced charity - and it is often overlooked. Thanks!

Posted by: Donald B. Hawthorne at March 16, 2005 8:54 PM