Private Charity Isn’t Enough

Originally posted here.

“The idea that churches can tackle national poverty, take care of those who are ill, and rebuild communities after natural disasters requires a spoonful of bad moral theology and a cup of dishonesty.” – Robert Parham

In this blog post, editor and Executive Director of Baptist Center for Ethics Robert Parham claimed that churches and charities could never do enough to alleviate poverty. I agree.

Poverty will never be “tackled” because it is a relative term; a moving target. If you could describe the plight of America’s poor today to a poor person in another country, or an American 100 years ago, they would conclude that poverty had been eliminated. The standard of living among the poorest Americans today is incredible by world and historical standards. Yet we still wage the war on poverty, even in America. This is not a bad thing – helping the down and out can be wonderful. But when we aim at targets like the “end” of poverty, there is no end to what we can justify in order to reach this impossible goal. “The poor will always be with you.” The question is how best to reach them, spiritually and materially.

The second reason I agree with Parham’s claim is that, to the extent that poverty can be reduced, private charity alone is simply too small to do it. The incredible gains in social and material welfare of the poor in America have not primarily resulted from charity, churches or governments. They have resulted from (mostly) free-market economies.

If we look at poverty in a vacuum as Parham does and ask how private charity compares to government efforts, we could conclude that private efforts are too small. But if we look at government and private efforts combined compared to the power of the market, they would be dwarfed so as to make them hardly important in the big scheme. Charity is a targeted and short-term salve for the wounded; its value is far more in its spiritual nourishment and encouragement than any material progress it brings. A vibrant free-market is the only institution powerful enough to bring about the kind of dramatic increases in standard of living that most of us wish to see.

Public Choice

Jumping from the premise that private charity is not enough to the conclusion that government must do something places a blind, sometimes idolatrous faith in government that counters logic and experience. The incentive structure in government departments is to perpetuate and grow regardless of their effectiveness or the need for their services. There is no check on whether or not they are effective. In fact, the less effective a bureau of poverty relief is, the more they are rewarded with bigger budgets. If poverty is on the rise, and they will always claim it is so as to increase their importance, the last thing to do is cut the department of poverty relief!

Government programs are also subject to “capture” by interest groups and politicians. Scratch the surface of any government program and you will find that it is not the “general welfare” being promoted, but the welfare of a very small and politically connected group at the expense of the general welfare.

To examine private efforts and claim they cannot tackle a problem is only half the analysis needed. We must also examine government efforts and ask if they can tackle the same problem before we charge them to do it. The field of Public Choice Economics does just this, and you would be hard-pressed to find a case where the market is not providing something and getting government involved makes it better. If Christians have a duty to help the poor, they also have a duty to use their brains to discover ways that actually work. Intentions and actions are not enough, we need to understand how to be effective. This requires some knowledge of economic and political systems.

Wrong about Rights

The most damning and least supported claim in Parham’s article was that it is wrong for a Christian to value other people’s property rights:

“[L]ibertarian morality values property rights over human rights. For a Christian, that’s bad moral theology.”

I beg to differ. What Parham leaves unexplained is how human rights are to exist absent property rights. Private property is not some sacred dogma for its own sake; it is important because there is no other method of peacefully settling competing demands for limited resources. Such resources include food, water, shelter and other necessities of life. Common definitions or human rights include the right to be free from hunger. How can you have this right if you have no right to the very food you need to survive?

If Parham means by human rights the right to food, shelter, health care and other positive rights, this poses an incurable conundrum. Positive rights are a logical and practical impossibility. They cannot coexist with negative rights, or even with other positive rights.

A positive right is a right to something. A negative right is a right from something. A positive right obligates another person to take action. A negative right prohibits another person from taking action. A right to life, liberty or property is a negative right. You are free to live and act and justly acquire property, and no one can prohibit that so long as you are not violating their rights. A right to health care is a positive right. If you have the right to receive health care, someone else has an obligation to give it to you. If I am a doctor and you say you need my services, I am obligated to assist you in a world of positive rights. But what if at the same time I am hungry and need to eat rather than assist you in order to maintain good health? Our positive rights to health care cannot both be fulfilled, and in order for one of us to fulfill them we’d have to violate the other’s negative right to liberty and property.

Indeed, it is not possible to have any moral theology whatsoever without an acceptance of private property. One cannot give generously what one does not own, and one cannot help another by stealing from him.

Means and Ends

To sum up the argument, the author couldn’t imagine church and charity doing a task to his satisfaction, so his response was to ask men with guns to take money from people who presumably wouldn’t part with it voluntarily, and give it to causes he valued. Everything government does is backed by threat of force. Indeed, that is the only thing that distinguishes government from all other institutions. Let’s remove the intermediary agents (IRS, law enforcement) and revisit the argument with the author as the principal actor:

Churches and charities can’t or won’t do as much to help the poor as Parham wants, so he threatens, “donate or else.”

That’s clearly a barbaric and inhumane way to a more civilized and humane world. Yet voting for people, who will appoint people, who will hire people, who will send threatening to extort money to give to some bureaucrats to spend on social causes is no different in moral terms.

Appealing to Christian ethics is an odd tactic to justify a redistributive state.  Jesus made it pretty clear that the methods of the kingdom of God are service, sacrifice, grace and love. The means of all earthy kingdoms are brute force and the threat of it.

When the rich man refused to sell all his possessions and give the proceeds to the poor, Jesus did not send the disciples after him to extract a percentage on threat of imprisonment. He let him walk away. Christians are supposed to do the same.

Aristotle on Mixed Economies

This is an article I wrote some time ago for the Ludwig von Mises Institute.


A friend recently commented that he has found wisdom in moderation. He said it seems that truth and goodness are found not at the extremes, but at the place of balance between extremes. This can be very true.

As Aristotle wrote in his Nicomachean Ethics, “Virtue must have the quality of aiming at the intermediate.” In Aristotle’s examples, it is cowardice and recklessness that are the extremes, courage the middle ground. It is drunkenness and uptightness that are extremes, and moderate drinking the mean.

My friend went on from this concept to state that he believed in neither socialism nor capitalism, but in a mixed economy — or what he called a “messy middle ground.” There are two main problems with this conclusion.

The first is that statements like this in the abstract are meaningless. To construct a pretend spectrum, and place various actions and beliefs on it and then to choose the “middle” between them does not give meaning to that middle in and of itself. That is, without actual arguments and definitions regarding what that middle choice or belief is, it is simply a made up point on an imaginary spectrum on which other ideas are arbitrarily placed. Using this logic, I could claim that, since the mean is always good, green beans and omelets are both extremes and I prefer the middle ground.

Most often, those advocating an idea simply because it is in the “middle” of their mentally constructed spectrum do so because they lack any real arguments about the idea itself. For the idea of a middle ground or moderation to have any meaning, the extremes must first be defined and understood as opposite responses to a common problem, and must be placed on an ordinal value spectrum, such as a standard of basic morality that always holds falsehood as bad and truth as good.

The second problem with the conclusion that, since even Aristotle recognized moderation as the source of virtue, a mixed economy is better than capitalism or socialism is that it departs from the logic used in the earlier examples of courage and moderate drinking.

Courage and moderate drinking were the mean because either an excess or a deficiency was problematic. However, both courage and moderate drinking are extremes in another sense. Courage is a word that describes the good state of mind in the face of danger. There is no case in which courage itself is bad or not to be desired, since it is by definition the proper balance between cowardice and recklessness — you cannot have too much courage, nor too little, only too much fear or too little. There is either courage or noncourage (cowardice, recklessness), just as there is either truth or falsehood. In this sense it is an extreme.

Perhaps this sounds like a simple matter of definitional difference. There is, however, a fundamental difference here, meant to show that moderation is only good if it is moderating between two bad extremes and to a good mean, and not if it is moderating between a good and a bad. As Aristotle put it:

But not every action nor every passion admits of a mean; for some have names that already imply badness, e.g., spite, shamelessness, envy, and in the case of actions adultery, theft, murder; for all of these and suchlike things imply by their names that they are themselves bad, and not the excess or deficiencies of them. It is not possible, then, ever to be right with regard to them; one must always be wrong.

The midpoint between murder and nonmurder is not the good choice — nonmurder is. However, the moderation between not caring a lick about the actions of another and caring so much you would use violence to control them is a good middle ground — but this middle ground is not to be confused with socialism.

Socialism is a system where government uses force to tell people what decisions they can and cannot make. There may be degrees of freedom within different socialist systems, just as a prisoner may be treated better or worse by different wardens, but if you are not free, you are not free.

Capitalism is an economic system that allows people to make choices free from government intervention. All government intervention is backed by the threat of violence — if it were not, it would not be a government policy, but rather a voluntary recommendation, or a rule of a voluntary association. The fact that one cannot avoid taxation and obedience to a government without physical consequences proves that it is not a voluntary institution, but rather one backed by force.

Advocating a “mixed economy” or a middle ground between socialism and capitalism is nothing more than advocating a middle ground between threatening your neighbor with violence if he doesn’t do your will and not threatening him with violence. If he resists, it becomes the same as the “middle ground” between murdering and not murdering. In that sense, capitalism is an extreme, just as courage is an extreme against noncourage.

In another sense, there is a middle ground economically. The middle ground is between caring so much about the economic decisions people make that you would threaten them with murder to control them, and caring so little that you would allow them to harm themselves or others. By definition, you cannot escape the second extreme by application of the first. You cannot care about individuals by threatening them with violence. Such care must come peacefully and voluntarily: by persuasion, not force.

The middle ground in this case is not socialism — or control by threat of violence — but a capitalist system in which individuals voluntarily look out for one another, and peacefully persuade others to look out for themselves and others. Capitalism is not a virtue in the way that courage is a virtue; it is rather a framework that avoids the extreme of violent coercion. Avoiding the one extreme, as a capitalist system does, does not guarantee avoidance of the other extreme, just as not being reckless does not guarantee you will be courageous. But again, avoiding the extreme of neglecting others cannot be achieved by embracing the extreme of coercing them.

The true middle ground is to accept a capitalist system — i.e., avoid the extreme of coercion — and choose personally to care for and about others, and persuade them to do the same — i.e., avoid the extreme of neglect. Since caring for others is a highly subjective, individual concept, no form of coercive economic arrangement can bring it about; one can only allow it to occur.

In one sense capitalism is an extreme in that it is the opposite of coercion. In another sense, capitalism is simply a system that allows individuals to choose the middle ground between coercion and neglect. Socialism, on the other hand, is an extreme in both cases; it is the opposite of freedom and it is not a middle ground between coercion and neglect; it is itself coercion.

Attempting to find a middle ground between coercion and freedom is a bad idea.

Finding a middle ground between coercion and neglect is a good one.

Capitalism is the only system that allows for both of these. We should not stop advocating capitalism, nor should we stop caring about ourselves and others in peaceful, voluntary ways.

I find it no less disturbing when someone says both capitalism and socialism are extreme and they seek a middle ground than if someone were to say both love and cruelty were extreme, and they therefore seek a middle ground. Some vices or virtues are found in moderation; some are found in absoluteness. As Barry Goldwater famously said,

Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! — Moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.

Capitalism is just. Socialism is unjust. There is no “messy middle.”

Vice and Virtue

I was talking with a friend recently who said that he didn’t beleive the government should legislate on “purely moral” issues, such as gay marriage.

He also said he thought the government needs to make sure to have social programs for the poor, and programs to create greater “equality”.

I had to break it to him – prohibiting vice and forcing virtue are both “purely moral” uses of legislation. Not to mention, using government to try to achieve “equality” and alleviation of poverty doesn’t work.

Great article on vice, virtue and morality in law here –

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