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There Is No Charity in Bureaucracy

Compassion, it seems to me, is better as a retail than as a wholesale virtue. No doubt there are exceptional individuals who are able to feel genuine compassion toward vast populations or categories of humans, but I think they are few. The more widely a person’s compassion is cast, the thinner it tends to be spread, until we begin to suspect that it is not genuine compassion at all, but a pose or an exhibition of virtue—in short, mere humbug, at best an aspiration, at worst a career move.

How we think of individuals is necessarily different from how we think of whole categories of individuals. For example, the other day I was walking through the streets of Sydney, a rich and prosperous city where there is nearly full employment. On the corner of a busy street kneeled a young man, shabbily dressed but far from being in rags, holding out before him an upturned paper cup from Hungry Jack’s, a local franchise of Burger King, in an appeal for alms. He looked down at the ground as if in some kind of penance; there was a humility in his posture that I found not so much appealing as distressing.

I gave him a coin and he looked up toward me, giving me a pleasant, fleeting smile, though his gaunt face was that of a young man who had not lived wisely or well. I smiled back at him. I should have judged him intelligent and perhaps even educated, but this was hardly the moment to ask him his life’s history as I wanted to do. My guess is that it would have contained many episodes of self-destruction, more frequently indulged in but perhaps of the same kind that practically all of us indulge in at some time or other in our lives.

The reason I gave him a coin was because, at the moment I saw him, I saw only a young man who was suffering. It cannot be much fun kneeling on a street corner with thousands of pairs of legs pounding by. A miniscule donation and a smile must give him a moment’s relief, though they could hardly be a solution to his problems, whatever they were. I was only too aware that the money he collected was likely to be spent unwisely, perhaps on the very substances that had brought him to this humiliating pass in the first place.

I could hear all the Gradgrindian arguments in my mind’s ear as I stopped for this young man. He will misspend that coin; you are encouraging him in mendicancy; he has reaped what he has sown; he is able-bodied and could find work if he wanted. Your actions, on whose compassion you pride yourself, are actually self-indulgent; they do harm rather than good, but they gratify your vanity.

Doctor Johnson knew all the arguments against rewarding idleness, yet never failed to give a penny to any beggar whom he passed in the street. Of course, in his time, people really did go hungry and cold, have no shelter, and starve to death in the gutter. There was no economic level below which people could not fall, as there is in modern societies. Still, the principle was the same then as now: if you reward people for behaving in a certain way, some of them will behave in it.

There was no graceful opportunity, as I said, to find out about this man’s situation, but at any rate he did not look like the chronic schizophrenics who now camp out in Paris Métro stations, for example, such stations being, for a few patients, the new long-stay wards of the old asylums. A sane but improvident man, I would have said, whose bad choices played a large part in reducing him to public begging.

One of the purposes of public policy must be to discourage, though of course it cannot altogether prevent, people from making such choices. Discouragement requires policies directed at making people take the consequences of their bad choices.

The most important criticism to be made of the welfare state is that it protects people from the consequences of their bad choices and therefore fosters and encourages those very choices, which generally follow the line of least resistance or favor instant gratification over longer-term desiderata. The welfare state undermines the taking of individual responsibility, especially where the economic difference between taking it and not taking it tends to be rather small, at least in the short-term.

Moreover, charity given as of right, for that is what the welfare state does, favors the undeserving more than the deserving, in so far as the undeserving have a capacity and even talent for generating more neediness than the deserving. (They also tend to be more vocal in their demands.)

The welfare state in fact dissolves the very notion of desert, because there is no requirement that a beneficiary prove he deserves what he is legally entitled to. And where what is given is given as of right, not only will a recipient feel no gratitude for it, but it must be given without compassion—that is, without regard to any individual’s actual situation. In the welfare state, the notion of a specially deserving case is prohibited, for it implies a distinction between the deserving and the undeserving. In my career, I was many times startled by the unfeelingness of welfare bureaucrats in the face of the most appalling, and non-self-inflicted, suffering.

Does private charity operate differently? My tiny act of charity toward the beggar in the street, and the tiny acts of charity of others towards him, which presumably gave him some kind of living or at any rate a greater scale of living, were not based upon his desert or lack of it, either. I didn’t know him, nor, I assume, did anyone else who put money in his paper cup.  Furthermore, our feelings of sympathy toward him ought not to have been lessened if we did know him and the foolish things he had done. Let him who is without foolishness be the first to starve.

The difference between public and private charity, then, is not that the former does not consider personal desert while the latter does; Christian charity, in particular, does not require that its recipients be guiltless of their predicament. It is, rather, the spirit in which the charity is given that is different. And that is why large charities so closely resemble government departments: you cannot expect a bureaucracy to be charitable in spirit.

Reader Discussion

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on May 03, 2016 at 09:03:51 am

Do we want bureaucrats with compassion? When I drop money in the collection basket at church, the first step in the process is for my reason and compassion to decide I should do it. My hand then does the actual work. I'd think it a bit inappropriate if my hand decided to rebel against my reason and compassion.

In any event, to the extent this could be seen as an argument against the welfare state, I think the proper response is probably something a lot like Dr. Johnson's attitude toward almsgiving--understanding, and maybe even being half-convinced by, the arguments but somehow not being able to shake the notion that a rich nation shouldn't let people fall below a certain material standard.

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JS85
on May 03, 2016 at 12:37:55 pm

[T]his was hardly the moment to ask him his life’s history as I wanted to do. My guess is that it would have contained many episodes of self-destruction, more frequently indulged in but perhaps of the same kind that practically all of us indulge in at some time or other in our lives.

I was only too aware that the money he collected was likely to be spent unwisely….

Moreover, charity given as of right, for that is what the welfare state does, favors the undeserving more than the deserving, in so far as the undeserving have a capacity and even talent for generating more neediness than the deserving.

DOOLITTLE. ….I'm one of the undeserving poor: that’s what I am. Think of what that means to a man. It means that he’s up agen’ middle class morality all the time. If there’s anything going, and I put in for a bit of it, it's always the same story: "You’re undeserving; so you can’t have it." But my needs is as great as the most deserving widow's that ever got money out of six different charities in one week for the death of the same husband. I don’t need less than a deserving man: I need more. I don’t eat less hearty than him; and I drink a lot more. I want a bit of amusement, cause I'm a thinking man. I want cheerfulness and a song and a band when I feel low. Well, they charge me just the same for everything as they charge the deserving. What is middle class morality? Just an excuse for never giving me anything. Therefore, I ask you, as two gentlemen, not to play that game on me. I'm playing straight with you. I ain’t pretending to be deserving. I'm undeserving; and I mean to go on being undeserving. I like it; and that’s the truth. Will you take advantage of a man's nature…? Is five pounds unreasonable? I put it to you; and I leave it to you.

* * *

HIGGINS. I suppose we must give him a fiver.

PICKERING. He'll make a bad use of it, I'm afraid.

DOOLITTLE. Not me, Governor, so help me I won’t. Don’t you be afraid that I'll save it and spare it and live idle on it. There won’t be a penny of it left by Monday: I'll have to go to work same as if I'd never had it. It won’t pauperize me, you bet. Just one good spree for myself and the missus, giving pleasure to ourselves and employment to others, and satisfaction to you to think it's not been throwed away. You couldn’t spend it better.

HIGGINS [taking out his pocket book and coming between Doolittle and the piano] This is irresistible. Let’s give him ten. [He offers two notes to the dustman].

DOOLITTLE. No, Governor. She wouldn’t have the heart to spend ten; and perhaps I shouldn’t neither. Ten pounds is a lot of money: it makes a man feel prudent like; and then goodbye to happiness. You give me what I ask you, Governor: not a penny more, and not a penny less.

George Bernard Shaw, Pygmalion (1916), Act II.

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nobody.really
on May 03, 2016 at 13:18:55 pm

Compassion, it seems to me, is better as a retail than as a wholesale virtue. No doubt there are exceptional individuals who are able to feel genuine compassion toward vast populations or categories of humans, but I think they are few. The more widely a person’s compassion is cast, the thinner it tends to be spread, until we begin to suspect that it is not genuine compassion at all, but a pose or an exhibition of virtue—in short, mere humbug, at best an aspiration, at worst a career move.

For what purpose do we care about other people’s motives – rather than their deeds?

Carnegie built libraries throughout the US in an era when books were not that easy to come by for many people. Sure, he plastered his name on the libraries. Did that diminish people’s capacity to borrow books there? Not in the slightest. I’ll leave it to god to judge Carnegie’s soul; I’ll judge his deeds – and this deed in particular seemed pretty great.

Similarly, I’m not that concerned with judging the souls of legislators that create social safety nets, or bureaucrats that administer them. I will judge the consequences of such programs. And as far as I can tell, the consequences are mixed -- but better than nothing.

Do we feel the need to denigrate charity done by others as a defensive reaction to our own plenty?

In my career, I was many times startled by the unfeelingness of welfare bureaucrats in the face of the most appalling, and non-self-inflicted, suffering.

I can well imagine that the feelings that move a man to put a coin in a young beggar’s cup might become extinguished by the time he meets his 10,000th beggar. In short, the reactions of the professional will almost always be different than the reactions of the amateur. Should we disparage people who choose to make a career of working with the poor on this basis?

The difference between public and private charity, then, is not that the former does not consider personal desert while the latter does; Christian charity, in particular, does not require that its recipients be guiltless of their predicament. It is, rather, the spirit in which the charity is given that is different. And that is why large charities so closely resemble government departments: you cannot expect a bureaucracy to be charitable in spirit.

I struggle with this. As Sir Launfal’s vision told him,

The Holy Supper is kept, indeed,
In whatso we share with another's need, –
Not that which we give, but what we share, –
For the gift without the giver is bare
;
Who bestows himself with his alms feeds three, –
Himself, his hungering neighbor, and me.

But I don’t know how to institutionalize that. And as I’ve discussed previously, I anticipate that society is heading into a world of ever greater wealth disparities and ever greater wealth transfers. In other words, a world with ever greater need to learn to do wealth transfers well.

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nobody.really
on June 30, 2016 at 06:29:19 am

Much as I love Theodore Dalrymple's observations, I feel this essay makes a dogs breakfast of the conclusions. Yes, he's right; but where is the flash of 'Wow, what an insight' I usually get? Giving and welfare payments are a moral hazard both ways; do good and do harm, abstain from doing good and do worse harm. No easy answers, but I know I am sick of paying tax to fund the dependencies of others.

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Chris
on June 30, 2016 at 08:34:03 am

Thank you for posting that bit of brilliance!!

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Crowely

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