Monday, November 8, 2010

A Brief Meditation on Charity: In Continuation of the Last Post

I think we are hopelessly muddled up in thinking about charity today. This one word is shot through with contradictions and used in so many different ways that nobody knows what it means anymore.

To begin: charity is good. Charity is those with enough sharing with those in need. This is a virtue and it is good for both the giver (who is liberated from the vice of greed by sharing) and for the recipient (who has a pressing physical need like hunger met which would otherwise go unmet). Charity of this sort ought to produce the virtue of gratitude in the recipient as well as the virtue of generosity in the giver.

But when a system encourages people to become dependent on charity, then it is attacking human dignity. To come to rely on charity when one could do something else destroys self-respect, decreases initiative and leads to self-loathing. So to accept charity when one does not need charity is destructive of one's character. And to give charity when it is not needed is to place oneself in a position of patronage and power over the recipients. It is to assume a parental role toward them that infantilizes them and disempowers them.

So charity is a good thing when it is needed because of unavoidable circumstances beyond the control of the recipient and when its intention is the short-term relief of real, physical needs that would not otherwise be met. But when charity is systematized into the modern welfare state so that entire underclass of dependents is created and people are locked into multi-generational poverty and dependency, then what we have is the creation of a monster state lording it over its subjects through its bureaucracy.

Getting people off welfare, not preserving, making permanent and expanding the welfare state, should be the goal of all those who care about human dignity and actual poor people. The socialist critique of capitalism cannot be that it does not foster the welfare state; that is its strength not its weakness. Socialism does not occupy the moral high ground here.

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