Charity versus welfare: the moral bankruptcy of state benefits

The most common objection to the welfare state is that ‘without welfare the poor would die in the streets’. It pops up without fail in every conversation about the legitimacy or effectiveness of the welfare state. What seems obvious to libertarians is completely impossible to fathom for collectivists: that absence of state administered welfare doesn’t mean absence of charity.

Indeed, before the welfare state, charitable donations were on a completely different scale than nowadays. Victorian Britain saw figures like Florence Nightingale dedicate her life and a substantial part of her family’s wealth to charitable work. Interest from the original fund is still donated to worthy causes today. In the 1880 the London Times newspaper claimed that London charities had larger revenues than several European governments. The Daily Telegraph reported that in the 1890’s women left 25% of their estates to charities, men around 11%. During this period some of today’s leading charities were founded, amongst others the National Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NCPCC).

Today, welfare has of course exploded to a completely different level. The state spends more than 20% of GDP on social expenditure. It therefore seems likely that voluntary charitable donations in a society without taxation would be significantly lower than under the current system of coercive redistribution, but it is by no means certain that less money would go to the truly needy – indeed, as only the truly needy would find willing supporters, it may even be that more money would be available to for example severely handicapped or health care for the destitute. But all this remains speculation.

The main difference then, is not the availability of charity to the truly needy but the premise on which it is delivered: voluntary charity means no entitlement on behalf of the recipient. Charity depends on the goodwill of the benefactor, whereas welfare is a legal right. Because the recipient of welfare has certainty of support, his incentive to avoid a situation of dependency is naturally greatly reduced. And since the recipient does not need the consent of the benefactor, who has no choice in the matter, moral consequences are minimal – there is no stigma of claiming support, even if it’s not truly needed.

This very important difference has a profound effect. Under a voluntary system, charity has to be earned. The recipient will be judged by his virtue. Voluntary unemployment would then find little sympathy. Incapacity benefits would be reserved for people actually unable to work – meaning less migraines and back pains. Untalented artists would not find sponsors. Rich pensioners would be paying their own way. Only in cases of actual need would charity be available. Proper incentives and individual responsibility would be restored.

And there is another important difference, pointed out by Alexis de Tocqueville more than 150 years ago: welfare as a legal right demeans the poor, it is a ‘notarized manifestation of misery, of weakness, of misconduct on the part of its recipient’. Observing the multi-generational welfare dependency in modern society, it is hard to disagree that reliance on state help has become a way of life for whole constituencies who have lost the belief in their ability to take care of themselves.

A society without state welfare is not a cruel, uncaring society. It is a society where individual responsibility is central to human interaction, a society where the assumption is that humans under normal circumstances have the ability to take care of themselves. It is a moral society, where the virtue of both claimant and benefactor is evident. It is a society based on voluntarism, not on the threat of violence, a society where the collective has no claim on the individual or his income. It is a society that we are unfortunately unlikely to see in our lifetimes.

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