Force and Charity

Rafe champion writes:

Welfare is a sticking point for many people of good will who support freedom but believe that they cannot be libertarians because of all the poor people who need assistance. Actually support for deserving poor people could be provided by a VWA (Voluntary Welfare Association), dispensing funds from voluntary donations from all the people who currently vote to support welfare policies. Serious socialists would set the example by donating all surplus wealth and income above the national average. I have run this idea past some socialists but they are not enthused because they think that the rich would be too mean to contribute. This view is amply refuted by the evidence of charitable donation, especially the way that donations increase when taxes are lowered.

I would guess Rafe is correct about real life rich people refuting this view by making donations (but I think it deserves a cite. There are well known examples like Bill Gates, but those may not be representative of the average rich man’s behavior.)

One could make objections to this argument, such as: “Without tax incentives, the rich will change their charitable giving behaviors.” Or, “Rich people today may be decent, but what if one day they start becoming scrooges? And wouldn’t the market make that happen because people who don’t give to charity will, on average, become richer than those who do?”

I don’t think those are very compelling objections, but I do think there’s an opportunity here to bring up a deeper argument.

Objecting to the possibility of a rich man choosing not to donate to charity is saying: he should do [the thing I think is best], and if he won’t do it then he should be forced. It’s advocating the violent seizure of the money from rich people who refuse to give away enough money.

So far this is a standard libertarian argument to which some people reply, “Who cares? When a poor man goes hungry, or can’t buy medicine he needs, that’s a really big deal too. Why should we prioritize an anti-social rich man, who will still have a very nice lifestyle because he has plenty of money to spare, over the poor man who needs the money to avoid basic suffering and to have some reasonable opportunities in life? Forceful seizure of excess money is one of the milder forms of suffering in the world, so why are you so dead set on protecting the people who don’t need your help from mild suffering at the expense of people who are suffering far more?”

This reply assumes that the reason that force is bad is that it causes suffering in the victims. That is certainly a reason that force is bad, however it’s not the primary one.

The fundamental reason that using force is bad is that force is an irrational way of approaching disagreements. This position is largely due to one of the best liberal writers, William Godwin.

Godwin saw that when people disagree about the use of some money, that is a disagreement. In a disagreement, it’s always irrational to assume one party is correct and the other is mistaken based on irrelevant characteristics such as the race, religion, or richness of one party. Instead, ideas must be judged on their merits. The view that taking the rich man’s money is beneficial assumes one party (the taker) is correct in his evaluation, and the other party (the rich man) is mistaken. And it assumes this without providing any argument.

When a man refuses to give money to one cause, he always keeps it for some other cause. The money doesn’t just go to waste, it goes to something else. People use their money for whatever purposes they consider best. The socialist disagrees about what is the best use of the money. And he reacts to this disagreement not by offering arguments that his position is correct, but instead by using violence. This violence doesn’t just cause some suffering, it also sabotages any rational debate that might discover the truth of how the money should be used. Forcing one use of the money, while destroying efforts to discover the correct use of the money, is an approach with no regard for truth or learning, and consequently must often make mistakes and never correct them, and that’s why it’s bad.

If the socialist had a compelling argument, surely he would use it. If he could persuade the rich man that the charitable cause he advocates is best, then he would do so. He would explain the merits of his proposed use of money; he would point out all the good it will do. It’s cheaper, easier, safer and nicer to persuade the rich man than force him. Who wouldn’t want a voluntary ally, if he could have one? People only use force when their arguments fail. They only use force when they cannot adequately explain the merits of their position. They pretend to use force because they know the truth, but actually they use force because their arguments are weak.

That last paragraph is an adaptation of William Godwin’s argument: “If he who employs coercion against me could mold me to his purposes by argument, no doubt he would. He pretends to punish me because his argument is strong; but he really punishes me because his argument is weak.”

Some might object, “The socialist’s proposed use of money is best overall, but not best for the rich man. There is a conflict of interest.” To claim that people fundamentally have conflicts of interest that cannot be resolved with reasoned discussion is a large and pessimistic claim. I won’t get in to it here except to say: if there are inevitable, unresolvable conflicts of interest, shouldn’t we aim for a system where conflicts of interest never lead to violence? It seems to me that it’s very important to make sure these conflicts reliably don’t become fights if they are bound to occur with regularity.

In conclusion, when the issue is seen in terms of a disagreement which must be approached rationally, and for which there is one truth of the matter, which is possible to find, then the liberal, tolerant approach to charitable giving is the only rational, truth-seeking approach.

About Elliot

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5 Responses to Force and Charity

  1. Rafe says:

    The general acceptance of progressive taxation (higher rates for higher incomes) indicates the way that socialist or redistributive thinking has penetrated the general population. Perhaps the fairest form of taxation would be a flat rate, the same rate for all.
    It needs to be realised that people who make big money in the free market do so by providing things like cheaper goods and jobs, each of which represent practical welfare. A manager in a small firm told me that he earned a bigger salary than the “workers” but he put in lot of extra hours to keep them employed and there was not a huge gap between his hourly rate and theirs. But there was a big difference in the tax.
    On the supply side of welfare, the case for voluntary and local provision is based on efficiency (local people know what the recipients actually need) and the sense of obligation or gratitude to identifiable people (the local providers and donors) rather than the anonymous mass of taxpayers, or “the government”.

  2. ThomasR says:

    Just because a rich man has knowledge about the things that made him rich doesn’t mean he knows how to spend well in other areas.

    Rich man could be ‘selfish’ in the sense of being biased in favour of his own parochial interests; he could be a status-seeking fat cat. The tax system gets around this bias by providing a blind set of rules for all.

    Government isn’t able to discuss with individual rich people how their money should be spent. Maybe it could provide a menu of where rich people can put their tax dollars, although fungibility would offset this. Fungibility, come to think of it, seems to weaken the Godwin argument: the disagreement isn’t primarily about where the rich man’s money goes, but about how much is first taken and put into a general pot.

  3. Elliot says:

    I didn’t say the rich man knows how to spend money well in any areas. I said we shouldn’t judge who is right based on irrelevant characteristics such as whether someone is rich.

    It’s commonplace that in disagreements people accuse the other party of bias as an excuse for why their own arguments are unpersuasive. But accusing someone of bias isn’t adequate reason to use violence against them.

    As to the general pot, I don’t see any weakness. There is a disagreement about where the money goes (to the general pot, or not). This disagreement should not be settled by threat of overwhelming violence, as it is today.

  4. Peter D Jones says:

    “It’s advocating the violent seizure of the money from rich people who refuse to give away enough money.”

    In a democracy, many will have agreed to the level of taxation through their voting
    patterns, so that does not count a seizure

    “The fundamental reason that using force is bad is that force is an irrational way of approaching disagreements.”

    To be precise, force is bad when reason is an option. You can’t reason with a madman who is gunning people down, you have to use force. Since people are not rational all the time, force is sometimes justifiable: irrationality fights irrationality

    “Ideas must be judged on their merits”
    an d they are during elections

    “The socialist disagrees about what is the best use of the money. And he reacts to this disagreement not by offering arguments that his position is correct, but instead by using violence.”

    The socialist (Or social democrat or moderate conservative…) IN A DEMOCRACY must first persuade the voting public that a certain level of mandatory taxation is needed. That is hugely different to iron-curtain socialism/communism. It a typical fallacy of libertarianism to completely ignore the whole topic of democratic consent

    “To claim that people fundamentally have conflicts of interest that cannot be resolved with reasoned discussion is a large and pessimistic claim”

    Who’s making it? In a democracy, the socialist and other parties argue it out and the voters decide, and are bound by their decision. if you agree tom pay an amount and then renege, that is not rational behaviour.

  5. Andrew Crawshaw says:

    – As to the general pot, I don’t see any weakness. There is a disagreement about where the money goes (to the general pot, or not). This disagreement should not be settled by threat of overwhelming violence, as it is today. –

    There is indirect coercion; the fact that you keep using violence as a synonym for coercion worries me. There is an indirect coercion in market rationality, by creating a very subtle form of artificial scarcity in order to compete. Furthermore people (workers, who I think create the real wealth) will be forced indirectly towards accepting underpaid jobs in order to survive, not only that there will be many people who will gladly take up the job that someone else has, (yes I agree some people are not worth employing) which will force the person already employed to keep decreasing what he will tolerate as part of his job, therefore diminishing by increments his humanity, until he is doing so much more for so much less, (in order to compete with people who are unemployed and made desperate, if you don’t think that business are like this – Look at the Supermarket Lidl, which has only just started righting its history of many abuses – firing people because they are part of a union, making people work extra hours without pay etc. the only reason it stopped was because it was investigated by state apparatus), which would be an indirect consequence of adopting anyform of non-regulated market, especcialy in the wake of the last 50 years.

    furthermore, if another person and I agree to something like him giving me money for a car say, and he does not pay up, the state is the best tool for resolving this if the person is not going to be reasonable about it. no matter how strong my argument is, it does not change the mechanics of someones mind, or reality itself; the person will not automatically dispense said reperations in lieu of abuses because words have been concatanated in a logical way and then entered, through aural channels, into his brain – people are not computers.

    The argument might not work against businesses (because they have a reputation to uphold), but the world is not made of businesses.

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