Can the Private Sector Support What the Public Sector Claims To? (Part III)

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This is the third part in a three-part series.  Part I can be found here, and Part II can be found here.

The Philosophy

Once the numbers are put to rest, the rest of the argument in favor of private giving over compulsory giving via a system of taxation is easy.  The philosophical argument can be broken down into two parts: one based on human teleology and the second based on a phenomenology of gift.

First, all being is in the process of becoming.  That is, all being has a certain perfection, a telos, towards which it tends.  A chair has the natural tendency to tend towards being that perfect chair after which it was designed.  Aristotle called this the final cause, and noted its place of prominence among the four causes of being, the other three being the material, the formal, and the efficient.  Humans, however, are unique in the material universe in that we can actively choose whether or not to tend towards that perfection of being fully human.  This is the gift of freedom that we are endowed with.  Of course, this freedom is not to be seen as merely the ability to choose between contraries, but rather as a freedom for excellence, as the ability to choose the good.  One might say that the ability to choose the good is part and parcel of what it means to be human.

When a human person acts charitably he is acting in a way fully consistent with that call to freedom.  It is the virtues that perfect the human person, and charity is among the most important of the virtues.  The curious thing about the virtues is that the only way to acquire them is to practice them.  They are habits.  The only way to become courageous is to act courageously, and the only way to become charitable is to perform acts of charity.  Thus, when a person acts freely in performing an act of charity, he is not only helping out his fellow members of the human race, but he is also serving to become a better person himself.  Further, the free act of giving has an impact on the recipient that extends past the offered resources.  The recipient recognizes the act of charity for what it is, and that act in turn becomes a model of charity in his own life.

In contrast to this, compulsory giving has nothing of the benefits shared by a voluntary act.  The agent, being forced to offer the money or service, is not acting in freedom, and thus it has no impact on his life of virtue.  Similarly, beyond the actual dollars and cents, the recipient of the tax dollars comes to see the funding as an entitlement rather than a freely offered act of charity.  Obligation replaces virtue, and the obligatory acts freezes both parties at the level of obligation, not allowing them to advance in virtue.  It should come as no surprise that modernity find these ideas difficult to understand.  Ever since William Ockham and his fellow Nominalists, even general morality has focussed exclusively on obligation rather than virtue.

Yet the perfection towards which a human person must strive is experienced in the human heart as a call to gift.  The deepest desire of the human condition is to give one’s self away and to receive another who is called to do the same.  In a paradoxical manner, we find our fulfillment by emptying ourselves to one another.  This call to become gift explains a myriad of human experiences like falling in love, risking one’s life for a person in danger, and acts of selflessness that seem to come naturally.  It explains the natural institution of marriage, the begetting of children, and dying for a cause.  We seek forever to give ourself away.

This is precisely why crowd our rates are not dollar for dollar.  Economists may refer to this as the “warm glow” effect, suggesting that people give because they receive some psychological benefit, an injection of happiness if you will, from the act of giving.  While there is a grain of truth to this, it is not the whole picture.  People give because they were made to give.  They become fully human in the very act of giving.  Private charitable giving is completely consistent with this call to be gift to one another, both for the giver and the recipient.  It is also why compulsory giving in the form of taxation never settles well with the one being taxed.  Deep down, people want to give – they don’t want to forced into virtue.


The Theology

The call to charitable acts is prevalent throughout the Gospels, and indeed the entire collection of Scriptures.  As a member of the Universal Church, one cannot dispense with the obligation to assist those less fortunate among us.  Yet the call to charity can never be disassociated from the call to spread the Gospel to the four corners of the earth.  Pope Benedict XVI tells us in Deus caritas est:

“The increase in diversified organizations engaged in meeting various human needs is ultimately due to the fact that the command of love of neighbour is inscribed by the Creator in man’s very nature. It is also a result of the presence of Christianity in the world, since Christianity constantly revives and acts out this imperative, so often profoundly obscured in the course of time … For this reason, it is very important that the Church’s charitable activity maintains all of its splendour and does not become just another form of social assistance …

“We are dealing with human beings, and human beings always need something more than technically proper care. They need humanity. They need heartfelt concern. Those who work for the Church’s charitable organizations must be distinguished by the fact that they do not merely meet the needs of the moment, but they dedicate themselves to others with heartfelt concern, enabling them to experience the richness of their humanity …

“[C]haritable activity must [not] leave God and Christ aside. For it is always concerned with the whole man. Often the deepest cause of suffering is the very absence of God. Those who practise charity in the Church’s name will never seek to impose the Church’s faith upon others. They realize that a pure and generous love is the best witness to the God in whom we believe and by whom we are driven to love. A Christian knows when it is time to speak of God and when it is better to say nothing and to let love alone speak. He knows that God is love (cf. 1 Jn 4:8) and that God’s presence is felt at the very time when the only thing we do is to love. He knows—to return to the questions raised earlier—that disdain for love is disdain for God and man alike; it is an attempt to do without God” (paragraph 31).

Private giving is free to be an act rooted in the call to follow Christ and preach His word.  This also raises the practical problem of government funds applied to social causes.  When giving becomes compulsory, there enters the possibility, and perhaps even the inevitability, of the funds being used in a manner contradictory to the consciences of individual taxpayers.  Herein lies the debate about tax dollars being used to fund abortion and contraception.  Yet these two issues are not the only ones on the table.  Nearly everyone has a list of causes that would be objectionable to their conscience, and natural outrage would be expressed if they were to be forced to donate to these causes through the tax system.  This reality is often used as an argument for taxation: if we left it to the individual giver, would there not be causes that would go unsupported?  It is an illusion to think that taxes ensure a baseline of morality.  Instead, they merely reflect the opinions of those in power, those elected officials tasked with budgeting the tax dollars.

Yet it remains true that the purpose of politics is justice as well as charity.  Is not the function of government to maintain some level of fairness and equality?  True, but it would be a mistake to think that this comes in a manner contradictory to charity.  The virtues are never in conflict, but rather support and strengthen one another.  Blind redistribution of wealth through compulsory giving, i.e. taxes, fails to incorporate man’s call to charity.  Even if it would lead to a more just economic reality, the picture would be incomplete at best, for as St. Paul reminds us, without charity, we are nothing.  Yet this takes us full circle to the mathematical argument in the first section that suggests that the monies available to a social cause are not increased by government subsidies, but all things considered, they are actually decreased.  It is really a loose-loose situation.  On the other hand, if we keep charity first and allow private giving to do its thing, justice follows as well.  This flip side is a win-win situation.

Finally, to echo the philosophical argument of person-as-gift, Pope Benedict offers the following:

“Saint Paul, in his hymn to charity (cf. 1 Cor 13), teaches us that it is always more than activity alone: ‘If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but do not have love, I gain nothing’ (v. 3). This hymn must be the Magna Carta of all ecclesial service … Practical activity will always be insufficient, unless it visibly expresses a love for man, a love nourished by an encounter with Christ. My deep personal sharing in the needs and sufferings of others becomes a sharing of my very self with them: if my gift is not to prove a source of humiliation, I must give to others not only something that is my own, but my very self; I must be personally present in my gift” (34).


The philosophical and theological arguments are clear: the world and mankind are better off if social causes such as poverty are funded through voluntary private giving.  Man is made to be gift, and he fulfills his destiny insofar as he gives of himself freely.  The only argument that could stand up against this is the practical argument that private giving would be unable to fund social causes: mankind, poisoned as he is by original sin, would fail to selflessly give what is necessary to solve the problem.  Whether or not a cause can be completely funded is not the issue.  There are many social causes that will never be solved this side of heaven.  The issue is whether or not government taxation has an actual positive effect on the particular social cause – this is where the mathematical arguments from part one become so important.  It seems that compulsory giving through taxation actually serves to decrease the amount of funds actually available to a cause.  Once the economic argument falls, it seems that there is nothing left to justify government involvement in social programs.

More to explorer

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  1. [C]ompulsory giving has nothing of the benefits shared by a voluntary act. … Similarly, beyond the actual dollars and cents, the recipient of the charity Bzzzt! Wrong, wrong, wrong – if it’s compelled, it ain’t “charity”. That sort of misuse of the language leads many astray via the Fallacy of Equivocation.

    Words are tools of thought. Misuse the tools and risk marring the work. Otherwise, a thought-provoking article.

    P.S. I look forward to your follow-on series, Can the Public Sector Support What the Public Sector Claims To?

  2. Micha,

    Whoa, whoa, whoa … (such is the only proper response to a comment the employs the phrase “Bzzzt! Wrong, wrong, wrong.”)

    I spend hours of research, hours of computation, and hours of writing to bring a three-part piece that tries to make the case for private giving over public funding … and actual rational and thorough argument … and you choose to pick on a single word? I try so very hard to be charitable in these forums. Those who have been around conversations in which I take part will, I hope, attest to the patience I usually have with people who disagree. The irony here is (1) I am quickly losing my patience with this comment, and (2) you don’t actually seem to to disagree with the post. Rather, you pick on the use of a single word. I feel confident that in the three parts, when all is said and done, I made it clear that I see private charitable giving as something very different from the funding that comes from taxes. The entire thesis, after all, is that the two are quite different and that the former is much preferred. Anyone who reads the piece for what it is will see this. The only misunderstanding will come from taking that one sentence out of context.

    I never claimed to be perfect – all of us write with imperfection. However, to claim that this single word “risking marring the work” is a bit of an overstatement. Honestly, it is times like these that make me wonder when internet writing and blog commenting is even worth the time that it takes.

    Defensive though I may be at the moment, I am also humble enough to correct the mistake. I have reworded the sentence, as I am sure you will see. In the future, however, while we are on the topic of charity, might I gently suggest that you proceed with more of it in the future when you choose to add a comment, especially with those writes that are on your side.



  3. Great post. Pope Benedict’s writing on what charity is supposed to be was an angle I have not seen before.
    Besides the crowding out of private charity dollars, I think you need to add the fact that government social programs crowd out the private programs and organizations themselves. They do this in several ways. Besides taking discretionary income as taxes, those who push for government social programs instill in our society the idea that only government can do these type of things. Our country had a great history of non-governmental organizations that did things like taking care of the poor, caring for unwed mothers, even insuring against sickness and old age through mutual benefit associations. Most Americans have no idea that such things once existed. They have fully embraced the Democrat mantra that government isn’t just one of many institutions that make up society; government is society.
    Another way government has killed off private charity work is by regulation. Think of Mother Teresa’s problems getting a building in NYC because it needed an elevator, or the recent cases of individuals who were stopped from feeding the homeless.
    I have a personal example from a previous company I worked for. Up till a few years ago it actually had an employee mutual benefit association, probably one of the few left in the country. It operated as a sort of co-op bank and insurance company. It had to disband because it couldn’t economically comply with new regulations.
    Marvin Olasky has some good stuff on the history of private charity organizations in the U.S.

  4. First, to Jake — I got a lot out of the series. Good job.

    In the interest of advancing charity, consider that Micha functions as an unpaid editor. He catches you on a word, you got angry (partly at yourself), then you fixed it. The paper improved.

    That’s the process. It happens to me all the time.

    And, Micha, don’t get too picky. You are an UNPAID editor, so don’t work too hard at it.

    Best to one and all. Now boys, shake hands (don’t kiss and make up, it opens another kind of problem).

  5. But laws are an expression of the general will; they are made by those who obey them, not by government. Government is the appointee and agent of the people themselves, operating under a temporary and revocable mandate. Its actions are the consummated result of the people’s organized wishes. That is where the supposed antithesis between voluntary and obligatory giving breaks down.

  6. Tony,

    I agree with nearly everything, and perhaps everything, you say. However, the fact that government crowds out actual programs, I believe, is considered in the dollar amounts presented in the literature, at least most of them. Herein lies the real problem in tackling this investigation. The professional economics papers were shockingly imprecise with their definition of crowd out. I can tell you that the theoretical, Nash-type papers presented the situation in whole, that is, the “cause” itself was grouped together, as was government involvement in the cause. In this case, “crowding out funds” is the same (or includes rather) “crowding out organizations.” However, in at least one paper that looked at historical situations and actual organizations, they presented the problem as it related to a particular organization’s funds, which to me suggests that your point would not have been considered in that perspective.

    Either way, there is another important economic reality when looking at your point (and perhaps this is what you are getting at). If an organization itself is crowded out, then there are good paying private-sector jobs that go with it. True, the government presumedly will hire more in order to perform the social service, but an economy that has private sector employment rather than public sector is generally a more healthy economy.

  7. Tony,

    Regarding the mutual benefit societies of which you speak, I wholeheartedly agree. The social situation in the early part of the last century would astound people if they could see what types of social services were being provided for by the private sector. This, indeed, is the strongest historical argument for my case. A great book on this is Beito’s “From Mutual Aid to the Welfare State: Fraternal Societies and Social Services”:

    Regarding education specifically, see E.G. West’s “Education and the State.” In this book, West looks at the education system in England and makes the claim that the private sector was taking care of educating the people long before the government stepped in via public schools. Largely, people who wanted education were getting it. But as more people started wanting/getting it, the government senses the trend and comes up with the bright idea of taking over education. In reality, the government solution did not educate more people, they were already being educated, they simply started educating more poorly. The book is here:

  8. Michael,
    I repectfully disagree with some of your points.
    Laws really are made by governments and not their citizens. If you don’t believe me, ask the Californians how Prop 8 turned out.
    In regards to government being temporary and revocable, the most powerful government body in this country, the Supreme Court, is neither.
    Governments have varying amonts of responsiveness to their citizens, but I don’t believe this is the point. Granted that it is the peoples’ choice as to whether social services are performed publicly or privately, the point remains that government does it inefficiently and lacks a very important incredient: love.
    At the end of things, when we stand before Christ as He seperates the goats from the sheep, and He asks what we did for the least of these, I don’t think He is going to be impressed when we tell Him that we voted for all the right social programs and pro-life causes.

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