Dan the Conservative apparently thinks imagining a society where all social-ills can be solved by private charity can stand in the place of a just society. He writes:
Charity, done right, is a double gift. In addition to the obvious benefits to the recipient, it transforms the giver. The left hasn’t figured this part out yet. By donating our time and resources, we create stronger, more resilient communities.
I would guess that Mr. Conservative and I probably have a pretty similar background. We’ve both attorneys. We’ve both had a lot of privilege and a lot of opportunities. If he decides to squander all of this and ends up needing help because he made some selfish and short-sighted decisions, we could reasonably say he deserves what he gets. If I decide to help him anyway, that’s charity. And I should help him. Charity is a virtue.
But social justice is not charity. It’s something we need to do because many of our opportunities have come at the expense of others. We’ve benefited immensely because we’ve had opportunities others have not had. We don’tdeserve those opportunities. We just got them. Hopefully we made the best of them. But they aren’t something shared by everybody. Having robust social programs and a robust social safety net is about attempting to create reasonably equal opportunity for everybody. It’s not about giving people more than they deserve. When we pay taxes to support social programs, it’s closer to paying a debt than giving a gift.
Beyond this, the idea that giving money transforms the giver has some problems. Yes—being involved in charities can be a transformative experience. But being involved on a solely financial level isn’t going to cause any massive transformations. Taxes aren’t going to prevent anybody from volunteering time or talents. That’s the part that’s going to be transformative.
Mandatory “charity through taxes” loses any benefit to the giver. We see our money leaving. It gets filtered through a bunch of grants, and, maybe, we see some money come back and do something in the community. If we’re lucky, that something turns out to be good. The whole thing becomes impersonal. Communitys lose the ability to control where their charity dollars go. Huge amounts are lost to inefficiency and overhead.
The idea that government is less efficient than alternatives is pretty misleading. When you have anything happening on a large scale, you get both efficiencies of scale and inefficiencies of scale. It’s not just the government.
I donate a few charities that do amazing work on remarkably slim budgets. If taxes were lower, I would donate a lot more—particularly since I could direct where that money was going and ensure that it had a meaningful impact. If one group was wasteful, I could choose another group. Charities have an incentive to be lean and transparent. But most importantly, the decision on how to direct charity dollars to have the most effectiveness would stay within the community.
When dealing with a problem the size of poverty, you need something the size of the federal government. Giving $20 to a local soup kitchen won’t solve the problem. Giving $1,000 won’t solve it either. You need a concerted, prolonged, and national effort.
Different communities have different needs. Those needs can best be identified by those closest to them.
So … what happens to communities that don’t have resources? In case you haven’t noticed, poverty is not evenly distributed. The whole “turn to your neighbors—they’ll help you out” works great … if your neighbors have enough money to help you out. But that’s not much help to communities in poverty.
The whole “help your neighbors, you don’t need the government” thing takes on a somewhat more sinister tone when we consider the overlap between majority-minority communities and communities with disproportionate numbers of people below the poverty line. It amounts to a way for us to beautify our own communities without addressing problems of systemic and racial injustice.