Friday, December 11, 2009

Real charity

My good friend Beau Weston at the Gruntled Center, in an uncharacteristically weak moment, recently welcomed the House passage of the Obama health care bill, the bill now being debated in the Senate. He sees it as the government "approaching life with generosity." Trouble is that generosity with someone else's money is commonly known as theft. Yet such is exactly the procedure followed in policies like the socialization of health care.

Can one legitimately reason from the fact that charity practiced by the individual Christian toward another using ones own resources is a Christian virtue to the conclusion that charity on the national level using resources confiscated from others is itself a Christian virtue?

Charity is by definition an individual virtue, and projecting onto a government body and calling it a virtue involves a process of abstraction which can only be called tortuous. Charity is giving of ones own to others; it is not taking from others to give to others.

In fact, it could be argued that the expansion of government "charity" is not only not a virtue, but militates against authentic charity by eliminating the conditions in which it thrives. One wonders what would happen to individual giving (which is substantial in the United States), for example, if the government took less of a percentage of people's incomes. What if, for example, one could take a tax credit for the amount one gives to social service charities? In other words, a system which makes it easier for individuals to practice actual charity, rather than a system which effectively discourages it.

"The richest nation in the history of the world," says Weston, "can afford to make sure every citizen has basic health care." But why is America the "richest nation in the history of the world"? It would be hard to argue that it was because of policies of government intrusion that result in a misallocation of resources, and much easier to argue that it is because of the ingenuity of private individuals operating outside the purview of government largesse.


Thomas M. Cothran said...

"Charity is by definition an individual virtue."

Is it? Can the Church not have a corporate charity? (Mustn't it?)

And I agree with Aquinas: the rich only hold their wealth in trust from God so that they may help the poor when it is needed. In other words, property, especially when it can be characterized as wealth, is only held conditionally. Or, more importantly, property is not an absolute right, but a means that is good only when it properly is turned towards its end.

And, since traditionally conservatives have no problem with legislating morality per se (a point on which I agree), it's certainly not theft any more than proscribing prostitution is slavery (because one does not have an absolute right over one's body either).

Libertarians make much the same argument with morality in general that you do with charity in particular: if morality is mandated by forced, it wouldn't have the right motivations, and thus wouldn't really be morality anymore. Furthermore, anyone who does act in a moral way would be difficult to distinguish from someone acting out of fear of the law.

Martin Cothran said...

An institution can practice charity only in an analogous sense. Charity is a virtue. Can institutions have virtues in anything like the same sense as individuals? A virtue is a perfection of the soul. Do institutions have souls?

I can see how someone might argue that the Church has a reality to it that no other institution might have. But it still seems to me that, even there, we are speaking analogously.

Gruntled said...

I think that health care has now become a public good, like education.

The United States does provide some education through private charity and for-profit schools, and used to provide more. But it never came close to providing it to everyone. When we decided that the whole nation really benefited from universal education, only the government could provide it universally.

Martin, do you see any way that private charity and corporate benefits could provide universal health care? I don't. I don't see a realistic alternative to government provision of the 15% or so of the population not covered now.

Thomas M. Cothran said...

I'm not sure it's plausible to speak of charity as an individual virtue, because I'm not sure that there is any such thing. Certainly individual can possess virtues, but they aren't virtuous purely as individual nor is their individuality sufficient to alone be responsible for virtue. The political (using this term in the Aristotelian sense) community is prior to the virtue of charity, and makes it possible in advance. A sharp dichotomy between individual and the polis is difficult enough to maintain in a purely policy oriented discussion; it's even more difficult to maintain when talking about the virtues. An individual requires a community in order to be virtuous at all, not just because of the practical necessity of being raised and taught well, but as the prior logical possibility of virtue. An individual cannot possess virtue as an individual per se, but as an individual in a political community.

Certainly the state doesn't possess the virtues in quite the same way, but it should at least foster them. Sometimes this requires an imposition of morality.

Further, the fact that the virtues may be practiced by the state by analogy does not mean that the state cannot possess the virtues, but that it can and probably should. Remember that Plato in the Republic used the analogy of the city in order to understand virtue (among other things).

Lee said...

> And, since traditionally conservatives have no problem with legislating morality per se (a point on which I agree), it's certainly not theft any more than proscribing prostitution is slavery (because one does not have an absolute right over one's body either).

The legitimacy of all legislation, whether conservative or liberal or otherwise, is grounded in an appeal to morality. Even stopping at a stop sign is morality-based, the "good" here being defined as the danger to human life if the sign is not heeded. Even self-identified, strictly utilitarian laws have a moral base, the "good" here being defined as helping something desirable to work.

If you legislate, you are legislating morality. The only question is, who gets to define morality?