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Discussion of Christian Charity

On April 10, 2009, I posted an article called Caesar’s Benevolence in the 10 Things I Hate About Taxes series. I criticized the supposed “charity” that the government “provides” through its welfare services, and showed that government does not have it within its nature to be truly benevolent.

An interesting discussion ensued between a commenter named Cathy and myself. She had a genuine concern for the well-being of those who have a hard time helping themselves, and I thought our discussion was very fruitful. With her permission, I have put together all of our comments (briefly edited) into this article in hopes that others may benefit as well. As libertarians, we emphasize rightly how the free market works to make people better off. However, we don’t always talk about how the envisioned charitable institutions will work. Cathy makes the excellent point that we should consider such things for the future.

Here is how the conversation proceeded…

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CATHY:

I hate taxes. However, I have an observation: the arithmetic assumes that all those from whom the government steals “for charitable purposes” will voluntarily contribute to any philanthropic or charitable entity without government coercion or control.

Haven’t other stats shown that in fact liberals are 90% stingier than church-going people and conservatives? So everything the government takes from liberals, even at its grossly inefficient ratio, would be lost to any charitable cause.

For simplification, let’s assume a neat 50/50 split between the two broad classifications of liberals and conservatives. If 50% of the measly 25% in government taxes is eliminated, doesn’t that in fact leave a huge hole for private charity to try to fill?

On the other hand, I suppose it could be argued that people prone to charity might give more and thus shrink the gap. Furthermore, isn’t it also known that most people give to churches/charities knowing they would get a tax break on it (one of the most insidious of Christian compromises with government — but now Obama’s rescinded)?

Wouldn’t that mean that those who obey Christ in their giving would have to bear an even heavier burden?

Isn’t the bottom line that – if we abolish the 16th Amendment, the Fed, and the IRS (all of which I am in favor of doing!) – we are faced with drastically cutting humanitarian aid to our neighbors, and then organizing local groups of people regardless of whether they’re liberal or conservative or Christian to meet the needs of those truly in need?

I’m in favor of this, but I see many problems ahead and many more people than at present falling through the cracks while the kinks are smoothed out.

What do all of you think?

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NORMAN:

The thing is Cathy, I think that those neo-liberals who SAY people should give but do not give their own money should still NOT have their money taken from them in the form of taxes in order to do public charity work. Plenty of people do not act in accordance with what they preach, yet that is, in effect, their right.

Government tends to mismanage and misallocate money dedicated to charitable work. Allowing that money to be retained by the original owners will allow them to determine what is an appropriate giving response, spending response, and investment response. Each of those will work to make people better off because of the win-win nature of trade and economic growth (see part 10 of this series). In the long run, all people are better off – including the poor in this country and beyond – when we honor each others’ choices rather than use coercion to control actions. (That may not exactly have been what you were getting at, but I hope that helps.)

You are correct that there will likely be people that fall through the cracks. Libertarians don’t promise a puppies-and-rainbows world. HOWEVER, people are ALREADY falling through the cracks, and I sincerely think that the chance of falling through the cracks is drastically reduced in the free society that libertarians envision. Make sense?

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CATHY:

Hi, Norman. Thanks for responding.

Do you have any solid numbers to support the contention that “the chance of falling through the cracks is drastically reduced in the free society libertarians envision”?

That’s what I’m getting at. There will be MORE thrown out on the street; forget “ALREADY.” The point is MORE, and the numbers will be huge.

Mainly because we haven’t had a Christian, restrained, moral society for perhaps 200 years now. We don’t know how to rear responsible citizens in the home; there is no moral consensus in our society. “As long as you don’t harm someone else” is hardly conducive to “DO GOOD to all.” If the impetus isn’t to actively DO GOOD, very little good will actually be done voluntarily. And that is anti-Christ and anti-Christian.

I am a Christian Libertarian. But I do see the point of the “liberals” that people who CAN’T take care of themselves will be forsaken as people struggle with far more limited means to maintain their care.

While Christ said we will always have the poor with us, was that an endorsement for ignoring them, for not using a government we do have a voice in (unlike He did under the Roman occupation of Israel) to obey His command at Luke 10:25-37 to “Go, and do likewise” as a Church/society, rather than narrowly as limited individuals?

Wasn’t one of Reagan’s cost-cutting actions to stop funding many mental institutions, with the result that overnight we had people on the street — which we now call “the homeless.” There were not these people on the street before Reagan took office. Most of the people on the street now are mental cases incapable of looking after themselves (alcoholism, drug addiction, and PTSD don’t help), and even with present government programs we cannot seem to deal with them as behooves the dignity of human beings created in the image of God. But at least there are at least as many who are getting the (expensive) care they need.

What will happen when even those grossly bloated and inefficient government programs are no more?

There are some people in my family I am incapable of taking care of, either physically, psychologically, medically, or monetarily. And I don’t want to see them wandering the streets, dirty, cold, sick, miserable, with rags for clothing, pushing plastic bags and trash around as their “household goods and treasures,” eating out of trash cans. As I see someone’s family members doing daily all over this country.

These people can’t work; they are thus not under Paul’s admonition to work or starve. What about them?

It’s insulting to imply I naively expect a “puppies-and-rainbows world.” But neither can I accept that Christian libertarians are excused by Christ for turning their eyes away from those He made clear at Matthew 25 He identifies with, either.

Christ’s message was for individuals, but it wasn’t about individualism. And I’m simply asking what is the plan for those whom Christ loves as much as He loves us, and for whom He also died, who cannot — not will not, but cannot — take care of themselves? Has anyone thought about this, and if not, why not? If so, what’s the plan, and shouldn’t it be published everywhere to help sell our libertarian, individual liberties, small-government position?

I think one of the obstructions to the larger society’s acceptance of the libertarian position is that it fails to take into consideration human frailty and the unpredictable vicissitudes of life. It’s not just someone else who may be unfortunate enough to become a walking vegetable, an “untouchable,” but by tomorrow, it could be me. Then what? Who will take care of me? I see that outside of government institutions and some church outreaches, no one takes care of others; therefore I conclude that if all government programs were shut down, and churches lose much of their funding, no one will take care of me. And this conclusion is right.

My “individualism” will overnight turn into absolute invisibility, and I will be left to die and be buried (maybe) as if I’d never existed. And none of the utilitarian individualists will care; in fact, their philosophy by definition rules out caring for anyone not capable of exercising their own sovereign individuality.

This is the specter haunting libertarianism, even Christian libertarianism. The flaw is that because all consciences are equally entitled to their personal preferences (moral relativism), logically, there is no social moral claim on anyone’s conscience, hence society has no moral claim on the individual, other than condemnation of outright and deliberate harm to another.

James the Apostle says there are sins of omission just as there are sins of commission. And perhaps omission is the greater sin, as it’s personal, private, and not subject to scrutiny and correction from without?

So, what do libertarians envision for the care of those who cannot care for themselves? Other than chance?

Do you see?

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NORMAN:

Right off, I need to apologize – I didn’t mean to sound insulting with my “puppies and rainbows” thing. It’s just a silly way I like to say that I do not promise a Utopian world of bliss. Bad things will happen. People are going to get hurt, there will be aggression. Yet, I do think that a society where institutionalized aggression – the State – is used as the basis of charity cannot work in the long run. That’s my primary thesis.

In my experience, there are relatively few cases where people are flat out incapable of helping themselves. Yet, they do exist. How then might we address these?

First off, we must recognize that many, many resources are being used in the form of “charity” for people who can and SHOULD help themselves. When those resources are freed up and those people who can work do, then production takes place and wealth can be saved. This is the only way in the first place (further savings) for how charity can ultimately take place.

With these savings in place, individuals will be able to choose adequately where to be charitable. I suspect that, just as we have now, many churches (like my own) will be able to minister actively to those people who cannot help themselves. There will probably continue to be charitable organizations supported by multiple groups (including religious groups) that work these things out. Furthermore, the families of those “helpless” ones – assuming that they do care for them – will likely be active as well in pursuing their well-being.

Keep in mind that it was only in the eras of prosperity — when everyone didn’t have to farm in order to survive — that institutions arose to help better meet the needs of those who didn’t function in society. To claim further, then, that the government is the only way to help these people in the end seems to ignore the very conditions whereby the benevolent organizations were created in the first place. (I recognize you’re not saying this implicitly, I’m just illustrating the point.)

All in all, the point still stands – charity forced at the point of a gun is not charity at all. It is immoral — but it’s also going to be inefficient to help effectively. We may not understand, nor can we predict, exactly how benevolent organizations will emerge on the free market – just as we cannot anticipate what technological innovations will take place – but we CAN recognize from history that by allowing the market to work these institutions are very likely to emerge. Maybe you’ll be one of the great innovators in this area! :-)

Does that explain the position better?

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CATHY:

Hi, Norman. Thank you again. And thanks for clearing up the implication of my naivete.

I agree absolutely that government — especially at the point of a gun — cannot (and adamantly MUST NOT!) force “charity.” That is not my point; I’m not looking for government to do that which Christians should be doing.

I’m simply asking if anyone’s thought about the implications of pure individualism, and if anyone’s thought about how to avoid the inevitable fallout from abruptly withdrawing government from those areas. Without the funds present through taxation of those who otherwise would not voluntarily give to charity or care for anyone else, Christians will have to carry that burden. Are Christians prepared?

My concern is that those people who cannot care for themselves NOT “fall through the cracks” because Christians didn’t look ahead and plan ahead to make sure that doesn’t happen to those people helplessly at their mercy. Now is the time, I believe, to be floating those ideas and plans. That is what I’m suggesting.

Yeah, I’d bell the cat, except I don’t have bells, strings, or any other means myself (to say nothing of being able to evade the teeth and claws), which is why I’m concerned about those people like some family members otherwise slated to be collateral damage — to fall through the cracks. If I can’t care for them, and the extorted money to do it is removed, and the Christian community doesn’t seem to have a clue, who will?

Balderdash on no one can predict or understand how benevolent organizations will emerge in the free market. There’s plenty of precedent to learn from and build on. Is anyone doing that, in anticipation of freedom from government coercion and taxation? Are there any plans to seal up the cracks? That’s the question. WHY should anyone HAVE to fall through the cracks?

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NORMAN:

Okay, I see what you’re saying now: your primary concern is the actual institutions that will come forth and provide for those needs.

My initial answer is a quite honest, “I am not sure.” Keep in mind that I didn’t say that no one can predict or understand how benevolent organizations will emerge in the free market, but rather that we, by that I mean you and I, may not understand/predict how it will happen – at least not in full. But even right after that, I said that we can recognize from history that these things DID emerge, meaning we can LEARN from history. Have I, personally, studied this in detail? Nope, sure haven’t.

I do know of a gentleman named Kevin Hodgkins at Univ. of Alabama is writing his dissertation on non-profits and argues that the “third sector” is a contrivance of the State. He is well versed in the history of charitable organizations. I should see if I still have his paper…

You can listen to Kevin’s talk at the Austrian Scholars Conference 2009 to learn more, or you can read his paper.

I don’t know if Christians are prepared. At this moment, if we had our druthers and could push the big red button to vaporize the state, I kind of doubt it. But again, I’m not certain. Christians throughout history have risen to the occasion to help needy people.

You are right, we need to be thinking about such things, just like we should try to figure out how to provide services that the State normally runs for the future libertarian society as well.

Tell you what, would you be interested in writing about some of this stuff further? I think these comments, briefly edited, would actually make a thought-provoking blog post here at LCC, maybe even at LewRockwell.com. Opening up this conversation to others would probably be worthwhile. Perhaps after that we could write an article together with some more elaboration about what those charitable organizations would look like? How does that sound to you?

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CATHY:

Hi, Norman. Sorry I haven’t visited in a few days . . . life, you know. ;-)

Sounds like Mr. Hodgkins will have some workable solutions. His thesis should be a veritable gold mine.

If we got rid of the 16th Amendment, the Fed, and the IRS, charitable deductions/non-profits would cease to exist, as they should. Congressman Ron Paul has often written about his experiences as a doctor affiliated with a hospital and how they handled indigent cases. Why is that so hard to do today? Because government wants control and every penny they can steal.

In the past, wasn’t it mainly Catholic charities that pioneered and carried most of the burdens of helping those who cannot help themselves? Convents and monasteries were the major players in starting hospitals, refuges, shelters, hospices…

Where are the Protestants willing to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with their Catholic brethren to pick up the slack, who now grudgingly write checks to get back their tax deductions for “being good”? And, ironically, the government has just begun to deny those very tax deductions!

Will there be Christians to pick up the pieces without demanding money back from their “donations,” and without demanding their names be plastered all over the place so people — especially those who must use their “services” and facilities — will know who their “benefactors” are (people, and not God)?

Where are those Christians who will love and serve simply because Jesus said to, without needing credit or tax deductions for it in return? Who will give freely and cheerfully to those in need, rather than to a church; offerings RATHER THAN a fixed “tithe”?

Where are those Christians who will support those who must devote full time to helping those who cannot help themselves?

And what about qualified Christians who would further Christ’s love and principles in treatments and programs, rather than the overwhelming majority of today’s secular philosophies and goals?

I ask the question because it seems to me if there were more orthodox Christians in these fields, there would not be the woefully lopsided majority of secularists in all the helping fields today. We let it go; it’s gone. What will happen if our revolution succeeds? Who will recruit/replace/moderate the needed, qualified, experienced but misguided people dominating the helping fields?

And who will stand against the perfectly rational pragmatists advocating euthanasia as a valid means of sustaining an equitable libertarian society? If you’re truly a libertarian, then no one should have power over life and death — and yet libertarianism is also the ultimate utilitarian philosophy. Practical and economic factors, if not enclosed in and checked by a species-specific and Christian humane philosophy, will demand society decide whose life is productively and economically sustainable and whose is not and should not be further supported.

This is anathema to Christianity. And to humanity.

Accidents happen without getting permission first. Some of us are born into this world unable ever to take care of oneself. If not killed by an accident first, we all get old and die, and should be able to without getting permission to.

But even now all that’s changing.

What worries me is that the vast majority of today’s Christians have no idea what the Bible really says, what Jesus said, what our Christian history is, how we really got to where we are, and chillingly, they really don’t care. And without this knowledge and understanding, there cannot possibly be a civil, Christian society, no matter if it’s truly a libertarian society.

With the upheaval of abolishing big government, with our economy truly in the tank, who’s going to have the time, much less the money (what money?!), to take care of others? In the dust kicked up in the struggle, who will see those who are already fallen — and who truly CAN’T get up?

While it is right and true that every human being, bearing the image of the Creator Himself, is entitled to the freedom to be left alone by others, as long as he does no harm to others, it is also true that God Himself expects those who call themselves by His Name and are able to use that freedom to help and carry the burdens of others — who equally bear His image.

But where is that teaching among Christian libertarians, or even in our churches today?

Just as there are the more “popular,” known sins of commission (among them the philosophy that human government should be given the power to regulate all facets of life, dictate and tax), there are equally heinous sins of OMISSION. This is first and foremost concerned with neglecting our needy and helpless brothers, neighbors, even enemies.

It is the sin of omission that has given us the government we have today: through it we have more convenient, and distant, ways of helping others; we don’t have to do it ourselves. It enables us to not have to be concerned except in the most remote and abstract ways about others.

What was Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan all about? And then, when asked (incredibly!) “What should we then do?” Jesus replied, “Go, and do likewise.”

Isn’t this the gist of the Gospels? The Great Commission? Jesus’ own sacrifice?

Looking out for others first.

Otherwise, we would have no remedy for our sin and damnation. We would all have fallen through the eternal cracks, with absolutely no recourse. After all, God is the first and ultimate libertarian. He is obligated to no one for anything.

Yet He created us, to love and to love Him in return. And when we didn’t, He yet intervened for us so if we to choose we can. He carried our burden. He personally saw to it we don’t have to fall through the eternal cracks.

Is Christian libertarianism merely survival of the fittest with “Christ” tacked on to make it more palatable to some frustrated Christians, or does it matter which is first: libertarian, or Christian?

Libertarianism, pure, has no obligations or duties to anything or anyone else but to self. (And I am convinced this is the major reason there aren’t more “converts;” most people recognize we DO have duties to others, and that self ISN’T all there is.)

Christianity is all about obligations and duties, first to God/Jesus Christ, then to the rest of mankind. (But Christianity has been used as an excuse to force others into obligations that aren’t rightfully theirs, both at the end of a gun and through oppressive and unjust laws. And now it’s payback time!)

I believe elements of the two can be harmonized, but we who are Christian need to do that now, and prepare for a future of freedom and liberty, given as our unalienable birthright by God, unfettered, yet with some God-ordained and needful obligations and duties as well.

It doesn’t have to be one or the other (except for those who are not Christian; this is a good way of discerning true Christians from all others). And for Christians, it must not be. But Christians must be thinking and talking about this. And if unnecessary collateral damage is to be avoided (along with the necessary condemnation it will bring on our own heads), we MUST take the innovative lead in all the discussions, and propose and make real viable plans in preparation for a new civil society based on the sanctity and protection of life, liberty, property, justice, and Christian — voluntary and positive — love.

What if Christian libertarians actually put out workable ideas for programs that would appeal to everyone currently fed up with and (rightfully!) suspicious of our government?

Proposals/plans for making sure there is little to no “collateral damage” if we WERE actually to get rid of big government, especially its fuel, income taxes?

What happens to all those government workers, civil and military? We’re not getting traction because too many people actually do depend on government and would lose everything if it were dismantled. This is in addition to those people I’ve been talking about who truly cannot take care of themselves.

Until those people can be convinced that fending for themselves is actually viable and in their best interests — material benefits — this isn’t going to change.

If some really smart and knowledgeable people put out there in the blogosphere and it blossoms into other media, and through word-of-mouth, ideas for programs and plans that could even now be begun and that would only increase in benefits, efficiency, suitability, more people would join the movement to repeal the 16th Amendment, end the Fed, and abolish the IRS.

I believe it could all be done at the local/community level, but there must be viable plans/programs to staff and fund and sustain these needed services.

If the proposals/ideas are good enough, they’d spread like wildfire on the Internet. I think that’s all it would take. Then the revolution would have no excuse for not happening! ;-)

Your kind offer: Please forgive me for copping out on you; I’m not qualified to write about this stuff further. I have no knowledge or expertise in any field dealing with any of this. I simply have SOME observations, from a very limited perspective. You know, the old “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing”? I also have a thin skin, and readily admit I couldn’t handle all the upbraidings and criticisms that would (rightly?) be aimed at me. I’m very opinionated about a lot of stuff, but perhaps not well equipped to deal with differing opinions, especially when demands are — justifiably — made to bell the cat, which I can’t.

You’re welcome to use anything you think is of value that I’ve written, and you don’t need to mention my name specifically to glean the important issues and ideas and get them out there. If anything is of value, just throw out there what’s needed or calculated to spark thought and ideas; that would be enough.

A revolution with no follow-up is analogous to shooting oneself in the foot (you have a deadly weapon, it makes a great deal of noise, and inflicts crippling pain, but . . . !); that is what I meant to point out.

I want the revolution because of the promise of the follow-up, but I see nowhere anyone addressing the follow-up, only of somehow doing the revolting.

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NORMAN:

Cathy, you’ve given me some good things to think about, I’m excited about turning this into an article for everyone to read. I’ll let you know when I’m finished. Now that the semester is over, I’ll have a little more time to mess with this. Again, thanks for your participation here, I’m so glad you’ve chosen to spend your time with us!

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Dr. Norman Horn

Norman founded LibertarianChristians.com and the Libertarian Christian Institute, and currently serves as its President and Editor-in-Chief. He holds a PhD in Chemical Engineering from the University of Texas at Austin and a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from the Austin Graduate School of Theology. He currently is a Postdoctoral researcher in Chemical Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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