Private charity improves morality

Why do we deliver charity through government? The habit has become so ingrained of late that the question is rarely raised. But if it is raised, I submit, the answer is much less obvious than the left-wing shouters would have you believe. It seems to me that there are four possible justifications, all debatable. I leave aside for now a fifth ugly possibility, namely that the welfare state is not about charity at all but about the middle class voting itself a big heap of boodle. This possibility is so real and so serious as to require separate treatment. But I ask you to put it aside for the moment because it is not relevant to the question of whether, assuming we regard it as our moral duty to look after those temporarily or permanently unable to care for themselves, we are well-advised to use government as the principal vehicle for furnishing food, clothing, shelter, medical care and such to the poor.

One possible answer is yes because government is more efficient. Now you laugh. But the fact is that some people on the left actually do claim that at least in health care a single provider has lower administrative costs. I concede that it does not face the administrative burdens associated with satisfying customers at reasonable cost. But I also note that even the most vociferous defenders of the Canada Health Act do not advocate a Canada Food Act or a Canada Car Act incorporating the same five pillars. As is surely obvious, were we to do so we should soon go both hungry and on foot.

There is another, more subtle, ground for disputing that government is efficient when it comes to charity. It is part of our fundamental constitutional order that everyone shall be equal before the law. And rightly so. As a result, public charity cannot and should not attempt to be flexible on individual cases. Private charities, by contrast, can, do and should distinguish between those who cannot be self-supporting due to infirmity and those whose principal need is to learn better life habits. Both should be helped, but not in the same way. And the latter require a level of discretion the state should not have.

One might accept such arguments about the inefficiency of public relief and still favour it, on three grounds that I can see. First, one might vote for tax-funded charity to make sure one is generous. It might sound silly, but don't we all know the will is not merely weak but fluctuating? Sometimes the only way to avoid lighting a cigarette at one o'clock in the morning is to avoid buying one at noon. Likewise, one might wish to put the temptation to be mean to the poor out of reach by summoning enough willpower to cast a vote for a pro-welfare-state party. (At present you can't do otherwise if you vote because all our parties favour it, but in principle one might face a choice and settle it in this way.)

Second, and more probably, concern about the generosity of others could lead someone to vote for public welfare programs, by which I mean not just welfare and EI but also health care and old age pensions for the poor. It is not immediately clear why, if too few Canadians are generous enough to give to private charity, a majority would be willing to vote to fund the public kind through their own taxes. But it is possible that a majority is willing to give if and only if they know others will not be allowed to "free ride.'' And public welfare could be a way of expressing that determination.

On the other hand, the history of private charity, before government elbowed it aside, is a great deal more encouraging on how generous most people usually are than you might be led to expect by contemporary rhetoric. And since I do not think those who are forced to give are themselves morally improved by the experience, I say that if government is sufficiently inefficient more is lost than gained by using it to rope in the free riders.

The last possibility, and to me the least attractive (other than the one noted above that the welfare state is really about the middle class helping themselves to the contents of the treasury), is that people may vote for the welfare state so someone else will pay instead of them.

We hear a lot about making "the rich'' pay, although anyone who's actually seen even a modest paycheque after deductions knows it's not true, to say nothing of sales taxes, gas taxes, property taxes, etc. In any event, giving away other people's money is not generosity, and if it's also not an effective way of helping the poor, it's not a good idea.

One might support public welfare for any of the four reasons I mentioned or some combination thereof. But I wonder whether any of them is nearly as firmly grounded in logic or fact as they are generally taken to be by their defenders.

Who, I note, don't seem as keen on a calm and dispassionate discussion of the matter as people securely persuaded of the merits of their argument might be expected to be.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson