Collectivism and Charity, Part II

If collectivism is an expression of charity, then we should expect to see virtue increase as it would provide a means for helping us fulfill our purpose of becoming good.  The last post ended asserting that virtue should grow in both the giver and receiver where virtues are involved – like charity and justice – if we are on the right path.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer defined the difference between ‘cheap grace’ and real grace being whether an action taken out of love was reciprocated with love.  Real grace is what we are called to, but ‘cheap grace’ is often exhibited through our actions.  Cheap grace is going through the motions without any change.  It is merely form without content.  It is the same with charity and justice.  Cheap charity is merely wealth transfers; true charity is about love and requires the personal involvement of both the giver and receiver.  Cheap justice is merely applying rules because they are the rules of those in power; true justice is about getting what you are due.

A second question we could ask is does the exercise of collectivism as charity lead to increasing our ability to make better choices.  This is where incentives come into play.  I think few people believe that individuals do not behave based upon how they are incented – regardless of what they are told.  We’ve all experienced it and seen it.  We’ve already seen an example from history where people were provided an incentive to cheat, provided with the opportunity, and then did it.  Is it any different today?  Take the example of the children at the southern border discussed earlier.  Government actions have created the impression for many people in Central America, that if their children can make it into the U.S. they will likely be allowed to stay.  It doesn’t matter if they will really be allowed to stay or not, as no one knows for sure.  Just the impression alone is enough for people to pay what for them is a relatively large amount of money just to try to get their child to the border.  Or take an example from business.  People are given directions to change their behavior in specific ways, either do more of something else or abstain from doing something.  These changes may even be included in their annual performance evaluations.  However, they continue to be paid in the same manner as before, and their current behavior is what maximizes their pay.  When this happens, chances are very small that the behavior will change; instead things will continue to go on as before.

We can also look at our many of our government programs as examples.  Take the programs initiated to eliminate poverty.  We have spent trillions in the war on poverty, but we still have more people today receiving assistance than ever before in total numbers, and the percentage of the total population receiving assistance is almost unchanged.  Government has advertised to promote the benefits of many of these programs, and reduce the social stigma previously attached to them, such as food stamps, and the roles of those receiving assistance has increased.  In addition, people are generally punished when they attempt to leave these programs as the benefits they receive often decrease more rapidly than they are able to improve their condition.  As a result, many do not leave a program for long period of time once they enroll.  Are these programs increasing virtue or vice?  Are program resources spent as intended?  Do these programs create greater independence or increase dependence?  Judging from history, I would assert they increase dependence; they prevent us from fulfilling our purpose.  If the opposite were true, then the number of enrollees in these programs would go down over time – as they were before the government implemented its war on poverty.  Once people enter these programs, it becomes very difficult to leave – people behaving as they are incented.  How can one make better decisions when they no longer make many of life’s important decisions, when they are insulated from the effects of decision making?

Finally, government has grown so large that it is incapable of effectively managing the resources it has control of.  It is unable to exercise the virtue of stewardship.  There are duplications of programs, waste, fraud, and abuse within many of them.  At times this is put forth simply as the result of offering these programs, that a certain level of fraud and abuse is reasonable and acceptable.  Really?  Vice is acceptable?  At best that position is inane.  If collectivism really provides a positive incentive, then why isn’t it successful when it is implemented?  Why has it always failed?  Thomas Aquinas, provided an answer and it has to do individuals having a greater competency in the ownership of goods than when goods are held in common.

Man has a twofold competence in relation to material things.  The first is the title to care for and distribute the earth’s resources.  Understood in this way, it is not merely legitimate for a man to possess things as his own, it is even necessary for human life, and this for three reasons.  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 everyone is content with his task.  We do, in fact, notice that quarrels often break out amongst men who hold things in common without distinction.

‘Man’s other competence is to use and manage the world’s resources.  Now in regard to this, no man is entitled to manage things merely for himself, he must do so in the interest of all, so that he is ready to share them with others in case of necessity.’

Man has been given dominion over creation’s resources in order to care for it and thereby provide the means for his own existence.  Each man has a responsibility both for himself and others.  Individual ownership is a means for fulfilling that responsibility, and subject to human agreement in compliance with both divine and natural law.  This can only take place in a moral and just society; a society where charity is present.

Finally, does collectivism as charity even work?  Here we’ll take a brief look at economics.  We mentioned earlier that the notion of freedom within collectivism was grounded in economic security, material possessions, rather than the ability to make one’s own choices.  F. A. Hayek wrote, ‘Freedom in this sense is, of course, merely another name for power or wealth.  Yet, although the promises of this new freedom were often coupled with irresponsible promises of a great increase in material wealth in a socialist society. . . . What the promise really amounted to was that the great existing disparities in the range of choice of different people were to disappear.  The demand for the new freedom was thus only another name for the old demand for an equal distribution of wealth.’  If this approach is better, we would expect the growth rate of economies implementing this approach to outpace those which do not take it.  We would also expect the citizens of these economies to be more charitable as they should expect to share possessions with others equally.  International studies of charitable giving indicate that those living in the U.S. give more to charity, both secular and religious causes, regardless of one’s faith. 

He also wrote that economies undergo a normal cycle of growth and contraction.  These cycles cannot be prevented, but they can be deferred, prolonged or made worse to some extent by policy driven behaviors.  The wealth transfers that occur within collectivism insulate the recipients from these economic changes as long as they behave according to program requirements.  So as the segment receiving benefits increases, there is an increasingly smaller segment of the population that bears more of the brunt of the changes in the economic cycle.  At some point this creates an incentive to avoid the effects of the economic swings and seek the stability of government assistance.  To prove this is not a sustainable approach, one needs only ask what would happen if everyone decided to enroll in assistance programs and no one any longer sought to earn a living through work.  Just how successful would the collectivist approach be?  Is that the same result that would be achieved if everyone decided to work for themselves and share what they possess with others?

Posted in: Charity


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About Dan Wolf

Dan WolfMy goal is that my writing will help you to get started on your own journey of discovery, or help you along the way on a journey you may have already begun. Our Founders considered education, religion, morality, and virtue to be the cornerstones for any successful society. Being successful requires understanding both the languages of reason and faith; reason alone is insufficient.