The Ethics of Macro-Compassion
How Government Interferes With Charity
If charity is a personal matter, then those personal decisions about it can be disrupted by larger forces such as government and taxes. Can government really compel a society to become altruistic? Would individual freedom work better?
Here is the third installment of a six-part exploration by David H. Chester, looking into the topics of charity, compassion and economics.
by David H. ChesterPART THREE (click here for Part One) Part Two
Charity and the Paradox of Social Responsibility
The principle of giving charitable aid on a personal basis to the needy originates from Biblical times10. This kind of philanthropy is effective only when the poor part of the population is relatively small, but when poverty is widespread, private donations to charity cease to be of much help. Then the government may decide to take-over the responsibility instead, with far-sweeping results.
The book of Genesis11 tells of how, with foresight, Pharaoh and Joseph stored corn in ancient Egypt, and later sold it to the indigenous population, saving their lives (but reducing them to a state of slavery, due to these farmers having to sell their land and livestock). It is but a short step from this Biblical stance of communal assistance for political gain, to the modern concept of a "public conscience". This is used by recent governments to justify the imposition of a tax burden, to provide for National Insurance, against sickness, accident, unemployment and deprivation amongst today's landless poor, whose social status is little better than that of the enslaved Egyptian peasants.
The claim of this being a charitable act is illogical, because charity is actually a private matter and the public at large (being a macroeconomic entity) cannot feel compassion. However it is interesting to note that both classes of big-business makers, the Capitalists (by their public-company monopolies) and their opponents the Socialists (by their nationalized state-cartels), have found it politic to propose that the effects of the (resulting) poverty are best tackled by additional taxation and the granting of subsidies to deserving cases.
In practice many governments allocate some of their budgets to relieve the effect of poverty. Within reasonable bounds, the sharing out some of the national income has taken an accepted place in our society, at least according to Socialist theory of the Welfare State. However, within Georgist ideology this general principle is implied rather than formally stated. Unlike Socialism, it is presumed here that this reallocated money should actually be collected from ground rents. It should not be taken from the other current forms of taxation -- not from the Producer/Capitalist's surplus income as Marx claimed12, nor the accumulated treasure that the legendary Robin Hood was reputed to have illegally extorted13 for reasons of compassion.
When private income is taxed, the would-be charitable act is compromised, due to the extra tax burden restricting the choice of how the donors' earnings are used. The handing-out of governmental support to the needy partly relieves the giver of this altruistic duty, because he now feels less justified in having to fulfill the role. But the distribution of national subsidies does not perform the same function -- since each act of charity is essentially an individual expression of compassion.
Sincere givers of charity find it unsatisfactory to replace the sharing of their personal incomes with the (convenient) knowledge that the subsidies are being taken from taxation instead. This will be true for as long as beggars seek alms, despite the easing of responsibility felt when their pathetic displays of misery bear lightly on the consciences of the majority of the other tax-payers.
To the Socialists it appears obvious that the general solution to the problem of impoverishment is to arrange for everybody to be in the same economic condition, by the redistribution of possessions and produce, according to need. However this policy reduces the motivation to work (due to it opposing the incentives and natural law of economic activity, as described above). With this enforced solution, the poverty-relief actually is taken from the earnings of the harder-working parts of the population, but then relatively little charity is forthcoming on compassionate grounds.
The alternative Georgist method is by the more subtle creation of the equal opportunity to earn (with a resulting rise in the amount of economic activity and rate of progress, and a general reduction in the extent of the deprivation). The reduced tax on production would also permit greater expression of the individual charitable actions, as and when they are deemed appropriate, outside the macroeconomic field.
Next week: George's Implied Double Negative Transformation
REFERENCES AND NOTES
10. For example, Exodus Ch.23 Vs.11, Deuteronomy Ch.10 Vs.17 to 19, Isaiah Ch.58 Vs.7-8, Proverbs Ch.19 Vs.17 and Ch.31 Vs.20 and Ezikiel Ch.16 Vs.49-50. Simultaneously with the need to help the poor comes the instruction of being hospitable to strangers. This is no coincidence, the reason for it is based on the situation prevailing at the time. Unlike the rest of the population, strangers could neither own land nor the direct means necessary for the production of food, clothes or other necessities. Hence for the most part they would be unable to support themselves in an economic sense, unless they were given some outside assistance.
11. Genesis Ch.47 Vs.14–20.
12. "Das Kapital - Kritik der Politischen Oekonomie", Karl Marx, first published in Hamburg, 1867.
13. The popular folklore concept of robbing the rich for the altruistic purpose of aiding the poor, in no way justifies this action of Hood. However the claim that the ends do justify the means has not passed out of favor in present-day political (and military) circles. It may be argued that Socialism is based on the same principle - both Lenin and Stalin used it in formulating their Communist ideologies, but it is a false attitude which is hard to abandon.
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