Thursday, July 22, 2010

Distribution of Charity

My uncle again.
I see the Christian doctrine as oriented towards the least among us Whether charity is dispensed throught churches or welfare departments makes no difference. You see it as a left- right issue apparently. I do not.
Ignore for the moment all the theological discussion that Jesus's followers, presumably in a position to understand what he said - or we could hardly call him a good teacher - describing the faith otherwise, and whose actions cannot remotely be interpreted as "let's make the government, if not the Romans then at least the Jewish authorities, act in a socialist way. That's our mission."

Let's play along. What if there were an entirely non-religious network of folks. Imagine them as loosely-organised, motivated by some general desire to help others in an overall way. They live among us and meet semi-regularly, reinforcing some values of wanting to not only keep the poor from starvation, but help people find jobs, give them advice, set an example, help even the less-poor, or people who have other problems besides food.

There are problems for the recipients with this. They feel embarrassed or thought-less-of. The help is unreliable. Busybodies snake in. You get cut off if people feel you spent the last money on stupid stuff, or didn't make an effort on the job they found you.

Contrast this with a system where people are sent checks by a remote federal government because by law, they deserve them. Anyone who has dealt with those receiving government checks can tell you that this can erode even good character. Listening to people complain about checks that haven't arrived, or benefits that were cut off, or things they feel they should have, does not inspire compassion for the poor. It inspires contempt, because mostly encounter the ruined ones, not the decent ones. But what we expect, we come to feel we deserve. Just human nature. And we feel we have earned things that we really haven't, like Social Security. Plus, you get more crime concentrated around housing for the poor, with no way of getting out of the neighborhood unless you give up your subsidy. And you still have busybodies. But at least no one tells you what to do with some aspects of your life, and you don't have to go to any public place to be looked over at tut-tutted at. You're a free American, and no one will tell you to stop drinking or using drugs. No one will tell you that your choice of men is ruining your life. You will get badgered about nutrition classes and birth-control, and asked a lot of questions about your family-and-partner history, which will be stored on a government computer forever. But they mean well.

Let me head off the arguments right away that 1) the churches didn't take care of the poor adequately, which is why the government had to step in. We have the same percentage of poor people. The major driver for reducing poverty has been technological improvement, like rural electrification and cheap cars. And 2) that most people are on welfare very temporarily. I'm not just talking about welfare, but even if I were, it is also true that most people were only on private charity for a brief time.

Let's let those societies play out independently in our minds for a bit. Do the work yourself here. Think of examples in history where the various methods have been tried. (That is not entirely a set-up question. While I have a favored answer here, the results are mixed, and that is also instructive.)

Update: I forgot to mention, there is also a very different effect on the givers.

See also one of my favorite articles on charity


ELC said...

I suspect your uncle would not agree with me.

Forced Altruism Is Slavery

jaed said...

Whether charity is dispensed throught churches or welfare departments makes no difference.

I have a weird property: I like to know the etymology of words I use. I've made a habit of looking up etymologies since I was a child, and so by now I have a feel for the roots and relatives of many words.

Our word "charity" comes from Latin caritas, usually translated "love" or "selfless love" or something of that sort, with a ritual bow toward Greek "agape". But the closest English word to "caritas" is caring. Christians are called, not to "give charity to the poor", but to care for people who need it.

Now try restating your uncle's point: "Whether caring is dispensed-" - and we can already see that this reformulation is senseless, because causing is not something that is "dispensed". (In the passive voice yet.) Caring is not a commodity.

Your uncle is saying "charity", but what he means is "money". And it's true, so far as this point takes us, that whether a government agency, a church, or a person sends you $X, you end up with $X. Whether the method of getting this $X is undignified, or harmful, or character-damaging for a particular person... this is not part of the picture. "Charity" extends to the money and that's as far as it goes.

He has, in other words, profoundly limited the Christian call to charity. Poverty is the only kind of need I'm seeing addressed here. And providing money (or useful material goods) is as far as he seems willing to go; otherwise, he would readily recognize that yes, it does make a difference whether a government bureaucracy or a church gives help, and he probably wouldn't be using the word "dispensed" either.

What starts as a commandment to care for those around you who need help has become a demand to make sure your government transfers adequate money to poor people. How cramped an understanding.

karrde said...

Equally with words-and-their-roots, the word "welfare" has to do with "faring well".

Kind of hard to reduce "welfare" to "check in the mail", unless we want to truncate the meaning harshly.

But that's what modern usage does...