There is a relationship between the other two points from the previous post: those around the government’s role in achieving a fair distribution of society’s wealth, and whether people will do the rights things with the redistributed wealth they receive. At the heart of this matter is the answer to the following question, ‘Who is best able to direct society’s resources, its individuals or its government?’ – for its answer is directly connected to charity. Historically, until somewhat recently, charity has consisted of providing things such as bread, food, shelter, care for those unable to care for themselves (widows, orphans, aged, and the dying), and debt relief. Charity is about service and providing sacrificially, simply because another is in need, and throughout the Middle Ages there was a direct connection between the giver and the receiver.
We all have the same nature, and therefore we are all equal. None of us is superior to anyone else. Instead, if we have been specially gifted in an area, we have an additional responsibility to use that gift wisely. The wise use of our gifts requires virtue. In regards to virtue, Clement wrote, ‘But all that is characterized by virtue proceeds from virtue, and leads back to virtue. And it is given either in order that men may become good, or that those who are so may make use of their natural advantages. . . . I reckon it is the part of the law and of right reason to assign to each one what is appropriate to him, and belongs to him, and falls to him. For as the lyre is only for the harper, and the flute for the flute-player, so good things are the possessions of good men.’
As we have all been given the same nature, we are all to share in the bounty of creation, which our Creator has made for our use. As we each have different natural abilities, we will likely accumulate different degrees of wealth for ourselves. This in and of itself is not wrong as long as we do not pursue the accumulation of material possessions as a goal in and of itself. Instead what matters is what we do with the wealth we acquire. If we squander or hoard it, we are not fulfilling our purpose. We are to use what we need and then to help others out of our abundance. For ‘it is monstrous for one to live in luxury, while many are in want.’ Because ‘it is not he who has and keeps, but he who gives away, that is rich, and it is giving away, not possession, which renders a man happy.’ ‘For, in a word, if one thinks himself made beautiful by gold, he is inferior to gold; and he that is inferior to gold is not lord of it.’
Charity is a form of redistribution, and it was intended to be performed at the level of the individual. According to Thomas, man has a three-fold competence in this giving. ‘First, because each person takes more trouble to care for something that is his sole responsibility than what is held in common or by many – for in such a case each individual shirks the work and leaves the responsibility to somebody else, which is what happens when too many officials are involved. Second, because human affairs are more efficiently organized if each person has his own responsibility to discharge; there would be chaos if everybody cared for everything. Third, because men live together in greater peace where everybody is content with his task. We do, in fact, notice that quarrels often break out amongst men who hold things in common without distinction.’
So there is an efficiency aspect as to who is best positioned to direct society’s resources that collectivists overlook. This bears itself out in how well different types of organizations do in providing services to those who receive their aid. For government, on average only 35% of each dollar they receive goes into direct services provided for their intended recipient. Each state fighting to get more tax dollars back than it gives, on your behalf of course, is a myth. No one legitimately receives more than is taken in. Government is not a creator of wealth, but is only a consumer of it. Charities, on the other hand, deliver on average about 65% of each dollar they receive in direct services. The less well ran ones tend to deliver only about 50% in direct services, while the really effective ones tend to deliver closer to 90%. Individuals tend to do better yet because they give directly to another.
From Thomas again, ‘The dictates of human law cannot derogate from natural or divine law. The natural order established by God in his providence is, however, such that the lower things are meant to enable man to supply his needs. A man’s needs must therefore still be met out of the world’s goods even though a certain division and apportionment of them is determined by law (divine, natural, and human). And this is why according to natural law goods that are held in superabundance by some people should be used for the maintenance of the poor . . . At the same time those who suffer want are so numerous and they cannot be supplied out of one stock, and this is why it is left to each individual to decide how to manage his property in such a way as to supply the wants of the suffering.’ This is both an efficiency and moral argument. But how can moral decisions be made by individuals unless an education in virtue and morality is received?
This relates to the final point, will those who receive aid use it well? Collectivists fail to see the inherent inconsistency in their own argument. They deem that government should be in charge of wealth redistribution, because on one hand people will not do the proper things with the wealth they accumulate. But then they assume, on the other hand, that those who receive the redistributions will use them wisely – and in today’s world it is generally the fungible good of money that is given as aid. Pretzel logic at its best. To collectivists this is deemed to create freedom. However, the notion of freedom offered by all forms of collectivism is not the freedom to make your own choices, and in process to fulfill your purpose; it is instead a freedom of necessity, a form of economic security. In the words of Frederick Hayak, ‘Freedom in this sense is, of course, merely another name for power or wealth.’
We will wrap up this discussion, picking up on the above, in the next post.