Search This Blog

Friday, November 16, 2007

Abusing Language: Charity and Compassion

Recently there have been some calls for greater taxation in order to redistribute more income to the poor. I touched upon some matters relevant to this in the poverty, charity and safety nets post. The lessons presented in that material should not be ignored. I have little faith that people with great enthusiasm for more redistribution would be careful in this regard.

The primary thrust of this post involves the use of the words charity and compassion in regards to such programs. I would call it the abuse of such terms. Walter Williams expresses similar sentiments:
Politicians exploit public demands that government ought to do something about this or that problem by taking measures giving them greater control over our lives. For the most part, whatever politicians do, whether it's rent controls to produce "affordable" housing, or price controls to eliminate "price-gouging," the result is a calamity worse than the original problem.

Liberals often denounce free markets as immoral. The reality is exactly the opposite. Free markets, characterized by peaceable, voluntary exchange, with respect for property rights and the rule of law, are more moral than any other system of resource allocation. Let's examine just one reason for the superior morality of free markets.

Look at the morality of a resource allocation method that requires that I serve my fellow man in order to have a claim on what he produces and contrast it with government resource allocation. The government can say, "Williams, you don't have to serve your fellow man; through our tax code, we'll take what he produces and give it to you." Of course, if I were to privately take what my fellow man produced, we'd call it theft. The only difference is when the government does it, that theft is legal but nonetheless theft -- the taking of one person's rightful property to give to another.

Liberals love to talk about this or that human right, such as a right to health care, food or housing. That's a perverse usage of the term "right." A right, such as a right to free speech, imposes no obligation on another, except that of non-interference. The so-called right to health care, food or housing, whether a person can afford it or not, is something entirely different; it does impose an obligation on another. If one person has a right to something he didn't produce, simultaneously and of necessity it means that some other person does not have right to something he did produce. That's because, since there's no Santa Claus or Tooth Fairy, in order for government to give one American a dollar, it must, through intimidation, threats and coercion, confiscate that dollar from some other American. I'd like to hear the moral argument for taking what belongs to one person to give to another person.

There are people in need of help. Charity is one of the nobler human motivations. The act of reaching into one's own pockets to help a fellow man in need is praiseworthy and laudable. Reaching into someone else's pocket is despicable and worthy of condemnation.

Warren Buffet has advocated the maintenance of the estate tax and higher income taxes. reported that Mr. Buffett said that the government should "take more out of the hides of people like me."

We've got lots of respect for Mr. Buffett's skill at allocating capital and for his performance on behalf of his shareholders. But he has his own motives here. He makes his money, in part, by buying family businesses that owners need to sell for estate-tax planning purposes. If he wants to give more out of his hide to the government nothing is stopping him from writing a big check to the U.S. Treasury. In fact, though, he has decided to give the bulk of his fortune to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, judging that they are better at using money to help the poor than the federal government is. He's given other funds to foundations controlled by his children, foundations from which Peter and Jennifer Buffett have drawn salaries. As we've written before, on the estate tax, watch what Warren Buffett does, not what he says.

If you want more redistribution then say so. If you wish to encourage people to be more generous and charitable, great. However, if it's not voluntary, it's not charity. Let's not abuse the language!


Bret said...

I agree that generosity and compassion can't be created by forcing people to do things and that if you use my taxes to help the poor (or some such thing), even if I'm not unwilling, there was no generosity or compassion on my part whatsover. Indeed, such government programs reduce generosity and compassion by taking them out of the hands of the populace.

However, it's also probably a bit of a stretch to call taxation theft. I think that a necessary condition for theft to occur is that it be illegal. Since taxation is not illegal, it's not theft.

erp said...

Even though we're well taxed (pun intended) and much of our income is redistributed (I read 41%), We, the People, are still the most generous in the world.

Since local charities spend money most wisely, we only voluntarily contribute locally.

Howard said...

...probably a bit of a stretch to call taxation theft.

Yes. I think Prof. Williams was trying to shoot down any claims for high levels of taxation and redistribution on moral grounds.