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Charity and entitlement

Issues

State budgets are facing staggering deficits-New York, $9 billion; Illinois, $15 billion; California, $25 billion-and national insolvency is visible on the horizon. The time is swiftly approaching when Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, defense, and interest on the national debt will consume all federal government revenues, with all other government functions having to be financed with borrowed money. It is time to question how we think about entitlements and charity before we go the way of Portugal and Greece. There is no Germany to bail us out.

But the long-term economic feasibility of the welfare state notwithstanding, there are those who question the value of private charitable giving-not just its reliability, but also its effect on the givers and receivers. Whereas in the modern secularization of Christian morality charity came to be recast as "humanity," today's critics actually see charity as dehumanizing. They see it as humiliating, an ironic form of domination. Perhaps this is why we have seen progressives in Congress pressing repeatedly to remove the tax deduction for charitable giving. Less from private hands and more from government will mean a better life for everyone.

Entitlements free us from having to depend on each other and from publicly acknowledging our miserable setbacks. When I receive assistance from my family or from a church deacon, someone I know has to know my circumstances. Entitlements allow us to deal with the faceless state and receive only what is ours. No grace. No gratitude. Independence. The virtue of humanity, in this sense, not only replaces charity, it delivers greater benefits and without the humiliation. At least that's the plan.

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But from a Christian standpoint-though believers may differ over the role government ought to have in offering relief to the poor-the goodness of private charity is beyond question. God commanded us to love each other individually. So, if God is for it, private charity must be good, and it must be good for both the giver and the receiver. True, like every outwardly good human action, it can become a filthy rag (Isaiah 64:6). The phrase "cold as charity" is an old one. But the abuse of a good thing or our failure to practice it the way it ought to be is no argument against its goodness. Think of marriage and family. Who gets that right? But it's still God's appointed way of introducing people into the world and preparing them for succeeding in it. So too, as God has called us together in bonds of charitable giving, let no political theory cast us asunder.

In my column last week, I asserted, "Charity ennobles and enables. Entitlements enslave and incapacitate." I was echoing Alexis de Tocqueville who, in his Memoir on Pauperism (a must-read), argues that legal charity, what we call public welfare or entitlements, "depraves men even more than it impoverishes them." Private charity involves people in one another's lives who ordinarily would occupy separate worlds, the giver actively affirming the receiver's humanity, and the receiver inspired with hope and gratitude. By contrast, attempts by the government to duplicate this relationship inspire resentment in the rich and envy in the poor, while leaving them still rich and poor.

Tocqueville nonetheless sees "public charity" as useful and even necessary in specific circumstances, so he is no libertarian. But with his characteristic genius and eloquence he cautions us for many reasons against "any permanent, regular, administrative system whose aim will be to provide for the needs of the poor." On an economic and political level, he warns against national bankruptcy and, when that happens, "violent revolution." But on a moral level, his concern is for what welfare dependency does to the freedom, dignity, and moral character of those who lose the incentive to provide for themselves and for their families.

Entitlements are attractive because of their apparent stability as a system of relief in contrast to the comparative unpredictability of private giving. But that is also their danger. As they are institutionalized and made permanent, they incline people to rely on them just as permanently. The widespread cultural habit of people voluntarily helping people in need-carrying them through a period of unemployment, taking care of them in their old age, providing pro bono medical care-unites us with ties of obligation and mutual affection. But the omniprovisional state destroys even natural human ties. Families evaporate. Communities disintegrate. It infantilizes, and even dehumanizes. The brick wall of economic unsustainability that we are beginning to experience is merely adding material constraints on the entitlement way of helping each other to the tragic moral constraints that have been obvious for some time.

D.C. Innes
D.C. Innes

D.C. is associate professor of politics at The King's College in New York City and co-author of Left, Right, and Christ: Evangelical Faith in Politics (Russell Media). Follow D.C. on Twitter @DCInnes1.

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