Charity Vs. Justice

It is often said that social justice is about forcing others to be charitable. I should let you in on a secret: I do not give a crap about whether you are charitable or not. If I was trying to force you to be charitable, I would be doing it to force you to be righteous, but social justice is not about whether you are just but whether our society is just (sorry, not everything is about you).

Now saying that I am trying to force you to be charitable, is a clever (though repeating the same stupid arguments over and over againn sort of undermines the whole clever thing) rhetorical trick. If I am forcing you to be righteous, I am forcing you to be saved…I am carrying out Satan’s plan. But, I am in not all that interested in the afterlife. I am hoping to make this world a better place to live.

Now, the prospect of a just world scares many religious people. I cannot be sure the reason for this, since the prospect of peace and equality does not contradict my religion. However, I think many worry that if we do not have inequality and misery people will not have a reason to seek out religion. Look at Europe, the well-being of social democracy has led to a people generally uninteresting in religion (though I think this mostly has to do with the history of religion on the continent). Yet, if your religion can only sustain itself through human suffering, this seems to be a religion that I should oppose rather than embrace.

One reason that I am generally uninterested in discussions about private donations versus government effort is that private donations are more about the giver than they are about
the needy. The change you put into the red kettle outside of WalMart this holiday season was more about the warm fuzzy it gave you or the sense of guilt it delayed than it was about those it will help. It will only help a small few and only for a short period of time. This is not to say that it is bad to give to charitable organizations. In fact such organizations do much good, particularly when we consider the rather pathetic and meager effort we make as a society.

The aim of social justice is not to “help poor people” (something we all think is good) but to minimize inequality and poverty. Private donations may well help poor people, but they cannot and do not address the deeper problems of poverty and inequality. Now the political structure of the United States has largely undermined the effectiveness of most government efforts to address poverty and inequality, so this is not a defense of government programs as they now exist, but only collective efforts can address the issues of poverty and inequality.

Many will say that my approach is inconsistent with Mormon approaches to these issues. That may be the case. This has led me to a recent epiphany. I may belong to the same Church as those who think that there Social Darwinism is rooted in some interpretation of the pre-existence, but I do not share the same religion.

30 Replies to “Charity Vs. Justice”

  1. I think you have missed why many oppose policies that have been linked to a great deal of human misery and poverty (e.g. Kenya, which has had a strong focus on social justice for many, many years).

    1. Stephen,

      I do not understand your first comment. As for charity, I value it as a moral principle, but it is a separate issue from justice.

  2. I remember Gene Jacobs, a law professor who had a profound effect on my viewpoint on charity, who felt that what we owed others was not self-centeredness and not blind charity, but effective intervention.

    Some used to joke he was a lone democrat in Utah, but he made a real difference, every where he went.

  3. The folks who disagree with you would probably say that the world you envision is not “just” at all. Or in other words, the means used make a difference.

    1. Mark,

      As a Kantian, I take means very seriously. That said the evil means which they dislike is not violence, imprisonment, slavery, or genocide. It is taxes. The extent to which they view taxes as slavery shows the extent to which they are morally corrupt.

      This post is also a response to a series of posts at a blog where I am banned.

  4. Setting aside the argument that transfer payments are morally indistinguishable from theft, one of the major reasons why I oppose the welfare state is that it tends to corrupt the beneficiaries – producing in the long run a culture where we are universally worse off morally, socially, and economically than if the transfers were not imposed in the first place.

    It produces an artificial abdication of individual responsibility. A culture of victimization where everything is always someone else’s fault and where the only available remedy is to demand more. Much higher levels of idleness, unemployment, dissipation, immorality, drunkenness, drug use, illegitimacy, broken homes, criminality, you name it. All due to creating a institutional disconnect between prosperity and personal responsibility. As a whole this makes society worse off rather than better.

    1. I personally think that you, of all people, are not in a position to judge the morality of welfare recipients. That said, I have never defended the welfare state as ideal. I think it is cruel and demeaning. In say this as one who has been on the worker side and the recipient side of government welfare.

  5. The academic literature supporting my position here comes in volumes. Losing Ground (1984), by Charles Murray, is an excellent summary. It is the primary reason why Congress enacted welfare reform in 1996.

    However, it hardly needs to be said that the corruption by subsidy extends far beyond many of those we think of as “on welfare”. Half of corporate America is on the take. The agricultural industry, ethanol producers, and the entire banking sector, to name a few.

    The most costly “welfare” benefits extend to the politically well connected, these days notoriously including members of various public sector unions, who have managed to promote themselves to the level that many states and towns are facing inevitable bankruptcy. That is moral corruption writ large.

  6. In the U.S., It is a simple fact that the deck is stacked against workers. U.S. tax law favors investors over workers. This is the reason that none of the Fortune 500 CEOs took up Warren Buffett on his bet. Those who are profiting but not working, i.e. the investors, are highly favored in the tax system.

  7. I disagree on the tax system point, but getting into the details of incidence and taxation is probably a bit far afield.

    Suppose, however, that a fabulously wealthy benefactor came to your town and offered a huge endowment on the condition that every resident under the age of eighteen received $10,000 a year to use according to his or her heart’s desire and every resident eighteen or over received $50,000 a year, with the same freedom, in perpetuity. Would such a gift be boon or bane to the future of the community?

    Would it make a difference if the gift was free food? housing? medical care?

  8. Hi Mark D., I disagree that my comment is far afield. Any discussion of fairness necessarily involves tax policy unless you live in Somalia.

    Warren Buffett’s point is that the average taxation rate (= total tax $ paid / total $ income) of his secretary is higher than the taxation rate of all 500 of the Fortune 500 CEOs. This is because capital gains is treated differently from ordinary income.

    Would it make a difference if the invitation was to accept eternal life (without money and without price, as scriptures say Isaiah 55:1, 2 Nephi 26:25) ?

  9. Paul, the answer is that corporations are legal proxies for their shareholders and pay ~35% income taxes on any earnings before the latter see any of it in dividends or capital gains. Furthermore, capital gains tax is not adjusted to inflation, which means that long term investors often have to pay taxes on “gains” in investments which have actually lost value in real terms. This means that the real tax rate on dividends / capital gains tends to be in the 70% range.

    This is wildly counterproductive and a major contributor to economic malaise. You can read Megan McArdle (who is not exactly a conservative) on that subject.

    If by the way, you say we should take the “corporation is a person theory” seriously for tax purposes, then making dividends tax deductible to the corporation, the way employee salaries and interest on loans are would solve much the same problem.

  10. Chris H, I don’t know whether you haven’t read the book or whether you do not consider data from social science “evidence”. Of course there has been much in the way of additional research performed since Murray summarized the field in 1984. I doubt any of it is particularly different in tenor than the studies from prior to that time.

    Losing Ground is the most influential book on American social policy post 1960 ever written. Much of it is now considered conventional wisdom on both the left and the right, which is why we have Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) instead of Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), among numerous other changes in the approach to social welfare in this country.

  11. Conventional wisdom? Now you you just full of it. I accept social science data as evidence, but it is contestable. Viewing Murray as definitive social science is like viewing Howard Zinn as definitive history. Both Murrray and Zinn are only taken seriously by the most diehard of ideologues. You only assume that nothing has changed in the literature since 1984 because you have not read any of it.

    I have read Losing Ground. I still own it. I understand your positions Mark, because I used to hold them. Influential should not be confused with being correct.

  12. Losing Ground is not a philosophy paper. It is, as I said, a compelling summary of large amounts of original research, much (if not most) of it performed by scientists hardly inclined to Murray’s general conclusions.

    The 1996 welfare reform passed the House of Representatives 328 to 100. It passed the Senate 78-21. Margins like that don’t come along very often. If this sea change in American social policy is such an offense against nature, where is President Obama’s proposal to return to the status quo ante?

  13. As a political scientist, I do have a vague sense off the difference between social science and a philosophy paper. I wonder if Patrick Daniel Moynihan, who knew Murray, didn’t understand the social science when he voted against the 1996 welfare reform legislation?

    Mark, when you start talking about Obama you get silly fast. Be careful.

  14. Chris,

    However, I think many worry that if we do not have inequality and misery people will not have a reason to seek out religion. … Yet, if your religion can only sustain itself through human suffering, this seems to be a religion that I should oppose rather than embrace.

    If this is your best guess at your political opponents oppose your ideas of social justice, how am I to believe you when you tell Mark you used to hold his views? Surely when you held his views it wasn’t because you were worried that religion could only be sustained thorugh suffering, was it? I have a hard time taking the rest of the discussion seriously when your characterization of the opposing point of view is such a straw man.

  15. Chris – I feel like what you’ve accomplished here is to win against the worst arguements against “Social Justice”. The arguments that you contest truly are flawed, and you definitely overcome them, but there are better arguements against wealth/income redistribution.

    Paul (10) – I agree with you to the extent that I believe that tax law is deeply flawed. I disagree to the extent that you believe it is “stacked against the workers”. For one: in most cases the workers are the investors. If you look at the holders of the stocks of any major company, you will see that between 65 and 80% is held by “institutional investors” otherwise known as pension funds and mutual funds – owned in pensions, 401(k)s, and IRAs of average (working) Americans. And, of the remaining 20 to 35%, some of that necessarily has to be owned in IRAs of low net worth individuals as well. So, dollar for dollar “working class” Americans own way more investments than some mythical “investing class”.
    Secondly, an economy that encourages investment (which ours in reality does not) encourages improvements in science, technology, and overall efficiency. Those dollars wagered by this “investment class” (as well as those wagered by the “working class” in investments) represent postponed enjoyment, and while that enjoyment is postponed, those dollars are being used to incentivize improvements in systems creating efficiencies and advances in everything from transportation to medicine. By creating these advances and efficiencies, all income levels or “classes” benefit from the results. I think it’d be hard to argue, that all other things being equal (which I realize they are not) that the poverty class from 100 years ago (or even 30 years ago) was better off, or equal, to today’s poverty class.
    The poverty class benefits from advances which are created by encouraging investment, which is helped by having a favorable capital gains tax rate.
    My logical conclusion from this though isn’t that the current system isn’t flawed, but that we should tax spending (particularly opulent spending), instead of either capital gains OR income.

  16. Chris – I also realize the probability that winning against the worst arguements is all that you are trying to accomplish with this post (or more specifically, venting frustration about the worst arguments).

    1. B. Russ,

      Thanks for your comments. The purpose of this post is only to address those specific arguments. Whether they are weak or not, they are some of the most common comments and arguments I hear, particularly when dealing with other Mormons.

  17. Chris H, well said, and I agree with you. I do think that means do matter in the just society–that is, I think some forms of help can hurt more than help. Just as I believe that there exists a thing like “enablement” or “codependence” in the psychologicial world, I believe that some well meant programs for a just society have counter-productive results. One well discussed example (which may or may not be accurate) is whether AFDC, intended to help children may have unintentionally discouraged family formation/continuation and led to deeper poverty. Again, that example may be inaccurate, but I don’t think the concept unintended results is. However, just because sometimes particular efforts to reach to just society may result in unintended harmful results does not mean that the solution is to give up on reaching a just society. Nor does it mean that the way to the just society is to allow the “free market” to operate untrammeled or to reduce tax rates on the rich (or on capital gains or dividends) and to rely on the charity of the further enriched rich. I think it means to be more careful in the means of providing assistance, not to refrain from providing it. I personally supported some of the changes made during the Clinton Administration, not because they saved money (I am not sure that they really did) but because I personally thought the system needed to be adjusted in some significant ways, and by and large, I think the changes were good. I personally think that health care reform represents a good balance between individual responsibility and safety net. It may be that the balance should be adjusted, but the answer is not to go back to the prior/present system.

  18. Where did I ever argue that we should return to the previous practice? Where have I ever claimed that that American social policy has ever been ideal or just. Mark, it is my post and I am not sure who the hell you are having a conversation with.

  19. Chris H, I am trying to argue the point with you of course. But if you think something is off topic, just say so.

    Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan certainly did say that the 1996 welfare reform was “the most brutal act of social policy since Reconstruction…those involved will take this disgrace to their graves.” There is only one problem. He was wrong. Embarrassingly so. For example, over the next ten years, despite welfare case loads falling in half, the poverty rate for black children dropped from from ~42% to ~32%.

    Take a look at this graph, for example. Or this one.

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