There are thoughts that gnaw at me sometimes. One, for example, is the extent to which my faith-informed morals (DISCLAIMER: I may skirt around some Jesus-y stuff in this article, where necessary) allow for resistance against those who would take advantage of me, whether it be asserting my interests when somebody is being manipulative or whether it be using violence in defense of self and others. Another example is the difference between charity and welfare.
My faith-informed morals also compel me to be charitable with my time, my money, and my efforts. I don’t believe that it is something “over the top” for me to do as a “good” person. It is, to me, a basic component of obedience to the morals and principles that guide me. As such, it can sometimes be hard to conceptually separate charity from welfare when you strip away the ad hominems, the dystopian undertones, and the inherent force of government and view welfare in its most favorable light, as “people more effectively helping their neighbors out of a hard place.” Yes, this is a rather unfaithful definition of welfare, but it’s important to be able to address opponents at their most mendacious.
Of course, when addressing welfare, it’s easy for a libertarian to toss out a few cliches and dismiss the entire thing. Taxation is theft. The ends don’t justify the means. There is a man with a gun behind every government program. However, cliches don’t change minds. Cliches also don’t address the emotional imbalance that is equivalent to the economic imbalance discussed in Economics in One Lesson. Specifically, when the warm-fuzzies are openly apparent and the pain is diffused among an entire tax base and hidden in withholding lines of a pay stub, it’s important to address this issue on an emotional level.
Most who advocate for welfare do so under the guise of compassion. Their overwrought whinging about how everybody against welfare hates the poor is convincing to many who feel true compassion for the poor. They are apparent emotional allies with the welfare advocates. Any amount of nuance and rationality on our part feels to them like equivocation and excuse-making. However, I’ve found that hearts are a blunt-force instrument and minds are a precision instrument. The heart is really bad at differentiating similar emotions or similar intentions. Without engaging the mind, the heart can easily mistake compassion for the similar emotion of pity. However, pity is different enough to completely change the emotional tenor of a situation.
Compassion is an emotion of similarity. You feel compassion because you recognize the innate human dignity of another. You see somebody who is suffering and want to help them overcome their suffering. It’s an emotion of humility.
Pity is an emotion of difference. You feel pity for something beneath you. Something pitiable is low and less than you. Pity is an emotion of pride. There’s a tinge of smug condescension that comes with pity. As libertarians, we know that if anything describes statists, it’s smug condescension.
Welfare isn’t driven by compassion, but by pity. This is why welfare is rotten to its core. The dehumanizing effects of welfare dependency are easily observed, but it’s no clearer than when somebody tries to get off of welfare. If you want to see somebody’s “compassion” for the needy vaporize, watch them interact with somebody who isn’t willing to stay enslaved to the welfare system. It starts with a guilt trip, continues with anger, and finishes with jealousy. See, the competitive undergirding of their pity motive for supporting welfare can’t deal with their lessers becoming their equals. When they say “think about the people who haven’t been as successful as you,” they’re really saying “mind your place in the order of things.” When they say “you’re being ungrateful for the help you were given” they’re really saying “welfare comes with strings, and these strings can’t be cut.” When they say “you’re self-hating” they’re really saying “back to the plantation, slave!”
If welfare were truly about compassion, it wouldn’t merely be a check-writing mission. Compassion imparts dignity, and cutting a check isn’t always the dignified action to take. Compassion is a personal connection, welfare is profoundly bureaucratic and impersonal. To the extent that welfare moves beyond writing checks, it is still completely beholden to the pity that drives it. Welfare programs are designed to maintain and increase enrollment in order to show a need for further investment. Much like any other government program, any initial “good intention” is quickly corrupted by the perverse incentives that come with “free” money. Of course, I question the initial good intention in the first place. Pity is lazy, and welfare is lazy. The hard work of understanding the poor and formulating a dignified response to their challenges is a herculean effort, not something that a government program is usually known for.
Charity shows what true compassion looks like. Most charity isn’t front page news. It isn’t touted. People aren’t shamed for not throwing their whole-hearted support behind a cause. Recipients aren’t shamed for no longer needing charity or for making suggestions for improvement. By removing the competitive dynamic that exists in pity based relationships, charity becomes more effective than welfare. This may seem counter-intuitive to those who are used to talking about competition as a primary driver of the free market, but social competition between the provider and the recipient is a very different competition than economic competition between similarly situated providers.
In summary, the supposed compassion of the welfare advocate is truly pity, which introduces a competitive dynamic between the provider and the recipient. This pity-based giving has the potential to be a net harm and is based in pride rather than humility. Charity, on the other hand, is a true act of compassion and is based in humility. This is why charity is effective while welfare is chronically ineffective.