How can we best confront the problem of human want and poverty? Two competing schools of thought frequently clash in this arena, painting two opposite pictures of what can most benefit the poor. The first school is dedicated to personal charity and philanthropy, while the second seeks governmental redistribution of wealth. While both systems seek the benefit of the poor, they are based on radically different ideas of personal responsibility, and ultimately lead in opposite directions.
Private charity emphasizes personal responsibility and stewardship. A poor man’s knowledge that another human being (perhaps even a personal friend) willingly sacrificed funds to help him serves as both an encouragement and a call to responsibility. Looking another man in the eye knowing that he helped you voluntarily is the best antidote against any sense of entitlement. It also reinforces to both parties the value of the human person, as the rich man counts the act of helping his neighbor as more valuable than the goods he might have purchased. In essence, charity promotes community and respect.
By contrast, involuntary governmental programs (such as welfare) do not encourage responsibility from either party. The givers in a welfare system (taxpayers) have little opportunity to meet or interact with the recipients of their money. While charitable giving is voluntary by definition, taxpayers have no choice but to pay into the welfare system, which builds resentment in individuals who might otherwise have been happy to give money to their neighbors in obvious need. For the recipients of welfare, the nameless, faceless governmental checks can quickly give rise to a sense of entitlement. There is no philanthropist or neighbor to thank, no one to hold the recipient accountable and push him to use the money in a constructive way. Also, government programs often absolve the well-to-do of any sense of duty toward the poor, as they trust in the government to do so. However, you can care best for people whom you actually know, and who will actually respond to your gift. Government does not “know” people, and as such can never care for them like a charitable giver can.
When prompted for a charitable contribution at Christmastime, Ebenezer Scrooge angrily replied “Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?” The miser brushed his duty towards his fellow men off on the government, which truthfully provided such conditions that many “would rather die” than enter a workhouse. At the end of “A Christmas Carol,” it is Scrooge’s personal and voluntary charity which both raises the Cratchet family out of want and brings joy to Scrooge’s renewed heart.
The point of charitable giving to the poor is precisely that it is charitable, defined by a love and valuing of our neighbors. Government welfare is inspired by neither of those things, but by a rejection of one’s own responsibility toward the poor. The answer is not to throw more money at a wasteful system. In truth, both the rich and the poor must embrace responsibility.