How Entitlements Crowd Out Private Charity

Jason Kuznicki

Jason Kuznicki is a research fellow at the Cato Institute and contributor of Cato Unbound. He's on twitter as JasonKuznicki. His interests include political theory and history.

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194 Responses

  1. Kimmi says:

    How utterly pedestrian.
    If you had that much money, why not hire folks to do something useful?
    I mean, truly, pick your poison.
    (note: still talking the same people you were…)Report

    • Jason Kuznicki in reply to Kimmi says:

      It’s a thought experiment.

      If I had that much money, I probably wouldn’t do it. Instead, I would invest, which would provide jobs and dignity for perhaps as many people instead.

      And I’d be thought a monster, because I didn’t give enough of it away, and because of my belief that the money really belonged exactly where it is — in the hands of someone who was in fact providing jobs.Report

      • “If I had that much money, I probably wouldn’t do it. Instead, I would invest, which would provide jobs and dignity for perhaps as many people instead.”

        I do wonder about the “perhaps as many” part of the equation, but I wouldn’t see you as a monster. I’d see you as someone acting rationally according to your perceived self-interest. Not particularly admirable, but not particularly condemnable, either, given as I would do the same thing and I already do the same thing, although I have much less money.Report

      • Doesn’t this kind of invalidate your entire premise?

        As in your thought experiment fails because even you’re not willing to do that with the money you’d have.

        And it’s not as if the two things are mutually exclusive. You can set up a foundation that invests its money into money-making enterprises and then take those profits and use it to fund your charitable efforts…you know, like the Gates Foundation.Report

      • DRS in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

        Investment doesn’t create jobs. Demand for goods and services creates jobs, when the demand is strong enough. Investment comes along to benefit from the increased demand by providing resources that companies can access to create the jobs to meet the demand. But by itself, investment doesn’t create jobs.Report

        • Jason Kuznicki in reply to DRS says:

          Demand is the one thing never in short supply. But if I were to see an entrepreneurship opportunity, are you really suggesting that I should wait, for fear that demand might not be too high? The very thing causing me to determine that I’ve found such an opportunity is my judgment of consumers’ demand.

          That judgment might be right or wrong, but there’s only one sure way to tell.Report

          • Dan Miller in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

            If demand is never in short supply, there’s a lot you have to explain about 2009 (or for that matter 1931).Report

            • Patrick Cahalan in reply to Dan Miller says:

              I’m pretty sure that the demand was still there. Just not the money.

              This is a consequence of having the measure of wealth be decoupled from reality a tad. There are advantages to it, too, of course.Report

              • Dan Miller in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

                From Wikipedia:

                “demand is an economic principle that describes a consumer’s desire and willingness to pay a price for a specific good or service”

                The willingess to pay a price is key here. If a genie offered me a free Mercedes right now, I would take it; but I wouldn’t be willing to pay retail for one, and hence my quantity demanded of Mercedeses (sp?) is zero. It’s very possible for there to not be enough demand to consume all production at current price levels. This isn’t a strictly liberal view, either; Krugman and deLong embrace it, but so does Milton Friedman.Report

              • Patrick Cahalan in reply to Dan Miller says:

                It’s very possible for there to not be enough demand to consume all production at current price levels.

                Oh, sure. But you have to be careful not to focus too much on the first half of that sentence without that qualifier at the end, there.Report

              • Brandon Berg in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

                Demand isn’t desire as such, but rather ability and willingness to pay. A person with no money may have unlimited desires, but his effective demand is zero.

                That said, investment obviously does create jobs and demand. Investment is basically paying people to build capital goods for you (or do research, or whatever). You’re creating jobs for those people. And their demand curves consequently shift upwards.Report

          • BlaiseP in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

            Yes. You should wait. Demand is fickle and in terribly short supply. For a new product, it’s non-existent. As an entrepreneur, you should do a trial run and hire in a marketing guy to help you determine how you might create demand for your product. Any new product must create its own demand cycle: all those old products are now being reduced to commodities.

            You can’t cut your own hair — or more properly, you shouldn’t. Don’t do your own marketing for the same reasons.Report

          • DRS in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

            But if I were to see an entrepreneurship opportunity, are you really suggesting that I should wait, for fear that demand might not be too high?

            What I’m suggesting is that you be a little more aware that your investment is a link in a chain and not take too much credit for things outside your control.Report

  2. Nob Akimoto says:

    If in fact you put no strings on the offer, this left-liberal certainly wouldn’t see anything particularly monstrous about it.

    Honestly think people put way too many hang-ups on the fact that some people, in the end, just need help.

    The fact that government programs exist at the moment is a testament to need. If charity alone could pick up the slack, I think you’d see private charity doing all of this in ethnically homogeneous, prosperous countries. That neither families nor charities were capable of covering that need, suggests something else.Report

    • Chris in reply to Nob Akimoto says:

      Right, I get the distinct impression that Jason’s not arguing with any actual people here, but only with monsters he’s created in his head.Report

      • Jason Kuznicki in reply to Chris says:

        I am quite confident that I have encountered the argument before to the effect that private charity is inferior to state-provided charity, particularly for these types of programs, because government charity binds us together as a society in a way that private charity can’t.

        I’m also confident that you would find it convenient to forget this very, very common assertion.Report

        • Chris in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

          Jason, can you point me to an example? I certainly won’t forget it, once I’ve seen it.

          And I don’t think Hegel counts as a contemporary American “left-liberal.”Report

          • Murali in reply to Chris says:

            FWIW, my mom has made similar assertions in the past. Also, when I used to source for donations to the Heart foundation, one of the excuses people* gave me was that while they felt for the poor patients who were struggling to make payments, the government should be supporting them. That they would end up paying for it anyway didn’t seem to matter (or they argued that the government was running bidget surpluses anyway). This is a common enough belief that plenty of ordinary folks hold.

            *i.e. generally speaking well educated people of my social class.Report

            • Chris in reply to Murali says:

              Don’t get me wrong, I know there are plenty of liberals who think the government will be more effective than private charity. I just don’t know any who argue either that this is because private charity is undignified (the people who I’ve known who think accepting charity is a dignity issue have been, for the most part, southern conservatives) or because government binds us together.

              I do agree with Jason that many people don’t see receiving aid from the social safety net as a form of dependence. I also don’t see many people who believe that getting our policing, schooling, fire and EMS service, military, roads, etc., as dependence on the government. In fact, I suspect that many people who think that receiving social services in the form of money or subsidized health care is dependence, while those other things aren’t, but our pernicious focus on money does that to people.Report

              • Murali in reply to Chris says:

                It is not an efficacy issue but a proper role issue. Many people think that government should be providing such aid to people because that is just one of the basic things governments should properly do. They feel that they let the government off the hook if they were to privately donate instead. I’m tempted to say they are liberals because the better educated in Singapore do tend leftward (at least anecdotally speaking), but the objections I came across tended to run both the liberal and conservative objections stated in the OP together.Report

              • Nob Akimoto in reply to Murali says:

                Yet isn’t the government extraordinarily unwilling to provide help to people in need?

                As in, the government goes to very great lengths to try to humiliate/shame people on assistance of all sorts and have extensive means testing and criterion from what I understand.

                Is this true? Or have I been misled on Singapore’s government?Report

              • Murali in reply to Nob Akimoto says:

                As in, the government goes to very great lengths to try to humiliate/shame people on assistance of all sorts and have extensive means testing and criterion from what I understand.

                There is extensive means testing, but it is not clear that this is done with the express intent to shame or humiliate people on assistance. If there was a lot shame attached to being in the bracket for which one receives subsidies, you’d think that moves by the government to expand the bracket would be less popular.

                The idea that means tested programs will be done away with at the drop of a hat (as compared to universal programs) doesnt seem to be true (at least in Singapore). The history of means tested programs is of a constant broadening of eligibility criteria.

                There is possibly some humiliation, but that is inadvertant. People who are eligible for social services are sometimes reluctant to avail themselves of said services to their own detriment because they feel that taking a government handout means that they are “poor” rather than “middle class”Report

              • Chris in reply to Murali says:

                I agree that it’s a proper role issue.

                I don’t know if many people feel like they’re letting the government off the hook by providing charity, but that’s probably because most people feel like charity is, at this point, a supplement to government.Report

              • Jason Kuznicki in reply to Chris says:

                In one very important sense, the government is failing to provide charity where charity is due. The poorest people on earth hardly live in the United States at all. What we do for people on Social Security is, relatively speaking, a lot more like a nice fringe benefit for the members of an exceptionally rich and well-armed country club.Report

              • Chris in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

                I agree with you 100%, but that’s not just a government issue. The entire system is set up so that certain people get fucked majorly while we live relatively comfortably even if it’s on the government dime. I’d say it’s an indictment of the entire system, of which capital is the biggest part, rather than of one part of that system, which is capital-supporting government.Report

              • E.C. Gach in reply to Chris says:

                The government is the contribution matcher of last resort.

                If I contribute X for purpose Y, the rest of you will have to match it.

                Charity is a blessing—government aid is a promise.Report

              • James H. in reply to E.C. Gach says:

                Charity is a blessing—government aid is a promise.

                This is the kind if mythology that I object to. It’s well established that government has a fundamental problem with commitment, because any future legislature can undo any past legislature’s action. In Michigan, the state recently eliminated the ironically named Promise Scholarship. From many liberals’ perspective, welfare reform was a violation of the promise made to the poor during the LBJ administration. So, sure, there may be a promise, but it’s a promise that’s easily broken.

                The promises that with certainty won’t get broken are the ones where continuing public pressure makes it political suicide to cut. And “promise” is not really a good description of the dynamic there.Report

              • Stillwater in reply to James H. says:

                But the promise of government aid isn’t an empty promise, right? It might be revisable, but it’s not empty. That makes it different than the promise of charity. Especially as those promises become more entrenched culturally.Report

              • James H. in reply to Stillwater says:

                Are you suggesting that the promise of private charity is an empty promise?

                If you are, I don’t understand (and if you aren’t, then obviously I still don’t understand).Report

              • Jesse Ewiak in reply to Stillwater says:

                Actually, considering that charitable donations go down and the need for charity goes up during economic downturns for obvious reasons, yeah, a government handout is far more likely to be around if the economy goes to shit than a private charity.Report

              • James H. in reply to Stillwater says:


                You’ve been watching the politicians too closely, and have learned the trick of answering the question you want to answer, instead of the one asked. That’s ok, I pulled that one this past weekend at a meeting and felt a bit guilty about it, so I can’t complain too much about you pulling it on me.

                But I will note that I’ve not heard of any Michigan charities shutting down lately, while I did note that the state closed down its Promise Scholarship. You can blame Republicans for that if you want. Just keep in mind that those bastards will take control sometimes, so that’s part if the reason you can’t fully rely on a state’s promise. It’s funny that when we talk specific policies folks are quick to note the evils of Republicans, but when we talk gov’t generally they tend to forget that the evils of Republicans are a permanent condition of the state. Ant evil they are liable to do us an evil the state is liable to do. There’s no escaping that logic, although it’s often conveniently forgotten.Report

              • Jesse Ewiak in reply to Stillwater says:

                I also haven’t heard of any charities shutting down, even though I’m sure an intense Google search could find some, but I have read or heard on the local news 148 stories it seems about charities having to do more with less since ’08 because donations are down for again, obvious reasons.

                Also, when it comes to government, I can vote the bastards out to restore the program. If a charity stops providing something and they’re the only resource for it in an area, well, I guess I’m just screwed.Report

              • cfpete in reply to Chris says:

                “I just don’t know any who argue either that this is because private charity is undignified.”
                Why don’t you do a search for: “Why I don’t like charity”
                If it was any closer, you would trip over it!Report

        • Kimmi in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

          I’m confident that assertion is being made for a multitude of reasons, none of which come up in your thought experiment.Report

        • Jack in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

          I have to agree with Chris, you have created imaginary liberals. Private charity and government assitance are neither competitive nor exclusionary. You posit a counterargument to this, but merely create a strawman of opposition.Report

        • Chris in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

          Furthermore, note that saying that private charity is inferior to state-provided charity because it “brings us together” is different from saying that it’s superior because it doesn’t make us dependent on one person. So I’d like an example of that, too, please.Report

        • Aaron in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

          This is such an absurd strawman it’s kind of hard to credit. You really are tilting against imaginary liberal windmills here. Private charity is not inferior to state-provided charity because government charity “binds us together.” It’s inferior because there isn’t enough of it, and the exact kinds of things that government is uniquely situated to do — i.e., countercyclical cash infusions to state governments to shore up their safety nets during economic downturns — at exactly the time that private giving dries up.

          I have absolutely no problem with your hypothetical beyond these points:

          1) I do not believe that there is enough private giving to fill the gap that a lack of public entitlements would leave. In 2008, Americans gave just under $300 billion to charity. The US government spends about 35% of GDP on social programs, or over $5 trillion dollars. How do you plan on meeting that gap without millions of people dying in the streets?

          2) A huge amount of inefficiency would be introduced by the duplication of effort that all of these private charities would create. The government can provide these services more efficiently and more consistently than any number of billionaires/co-religionists/philanthropists.

          3) I think your basic premise evinces a total lack of appreciate for the degree to which human immiseration was a constant thread running through human society — and still is in many parts of the world — before the advent of the Western-style welfare state. The 19th Century is not noted for its comprehensive, private social welfare system. It is, however, noted for its rampant, unchecked capitalism.Report

          • James Hanley in reply to Aaron says:

            I do not believe that there is enough private giving to fill the gap that a lack of public entitlements would leave. In 2008, Americans gave just under $300 billion to charity. The US government spends about 35% of GDP on social programs, or over $5 trillion dollars. How do you plan on meeting that gap without millions of people dying in the streets?

            This assumes the U.S. needs to spend over $5 trillion per year, and that this is actually the amount going to those in need. Both of those assumptions are debatable.Report

            • Just out of curiosity, have you ever looked at the efficacy and efficiency of private aid groups and the challenges involving geocoding of NGO aid, for example? The Strauss Center has done a bit of research in partnership with Development Gateway and CCAPs. The results are interesting, but they hardly show that private charity is a great way of efficiently allocating money to populations in need.Report

          • Nob Akimoto in reply to Aaron says:

            2) A huge amount of inefficiency would be introduced by the duplication of effort that all of these private charities would create. The government can provide these services more efficiently and more consistently than any number of billionaires/co-religionists/philanthropists.

            This is a fantastic point, particularly because this happens far, far too often in that people will start up their own charity rather than give to an existing one for the purpose of filling their own particular niche need or even as an ego booster. NGO and aid coding is one of those areas where the resources are still substantially less than needed and the voluntary nature of compliance makes it very difficult to make any progress.Report

            • Jesse Ewiak in reply to Nob Akimoto says:

              But, I’ve been told by people on this site that having 12 different competing Food Stamp programs, 7 different low-income housing programs, and 9 different Social Security systems would be great because of competition!Report

              • James Hanley in reply to Jesse Ewiak says:

                Well, Jesse, eventually I’ll come to my senses and realize that liberals are right about everything, and there’s nothing to be gained by ever questioning even one iota of their favored programs.Report

              • Aaron in reply to James Hanley says:

                It’s not an issue of you coming to realize that liberals are right about all of their preferred policy positions. But so far, I don’t see any sort of realistic proposal as to how Jason’s charity-based system would work in the real world. And that’s fine, maybe he’s okay with old people dying in the streets. But there’s simply no way to provide the level of service that the government does, both due to lack of funding of private charity, and due to wasteful resource allocation.

                It seems to me that if we’re going to take this thought experiment seriously, these issues need to be addressed. Where does the money come from? What level of service will these private charities provide? What happens to the remainder? How do you ensure the continuity of service in the face of economic downturns?

                I think those are all reasonable questions, but so far all I see is handwaving and people saying “There’s no dignity in government dependence!” and taking as given that private charity is superior to government charity. I don’t see it. If you’re going to complain about how liberals act as if their policy positions are superior, perhaps you ought to actually propose some realistic policy and not just ideological bromides.Report

              • James H. in reply to Aaron says:

                I’m not even defending Jason’s argument. All I’m doing is asking liberals to examine the assumptions in their arguments. They’re doing quite a good job of questioning Jaon’s assumptions, but seem to think there’s no legitimate questions about their own assumptions.

                To read the argument it would appear that either Jason’s right and liberals are wrong, or they’re right and he’s wrong. But what if both he and they are operating from flawed assumptions?Report

              • Patrick Cahalan in reply to James H. says:

                (psst. that’s where I was coming from)Report

              • Chris in reply to James H. says:

                I think Jason did a pretty good job of getting the liberals here to throw out what they really think of the state.

                It made me think that the best way to get people to talk about what they really believe is to misrepresent their views in a post.Report

        • I am quite confident that I have encountered the argument before to the effect that private charity is inferior to state-provided charity, particularly for these types of programs, because government charity binds us together as a society in a way that private charity can’t.

          I’m also confident that you would find it convenient to forget this very, very common assertion.

          I’m tempted to note this comment in later threads when people lodge ad hominems against libertarians about their “convenient” assumptions and denials and when the libertarian in question asks for “one single instance where I’ve done that to you.” I probably won’t because in the end, the function of my so noting the comment will be to engage in an endless round of tu-quoque’s and charges of hypocrisy. And hypocrisy, as BlaiseP pointed out in another thread, is easy to make because we are all hypocrites in some ways. (That’s not exactly what BlaiseP said, and I might be putting words into his mouth, but I liked his point.)

          But okay, your claim that liberals make this argument about philanthropic billionaires being monsters rings true even though I can’t offhand come up with an example (in my less than kind moments, I have a lot of bad things to mutter under my breath about private-charitable people I’ve met in my life, although I admit that they certainly give more, by whatever standard, than I do or have). The claim that liberals argue that we need to be bound together as a society rings a bit truer Let’s say though, Jason, you encounter a liberal who not only claims not to endorse that argument, but whose past practice has demonstrated that she or he does not endorse those arguments and has demonstrated that she or his is willing to endorse some sort of public-private partnership, not on some normative ground of “we ought to bind people together” but on the ground that things are very complicated?

          In other words, what further points are you going to bring to him or her? How are you going to answer New Dealer’s position below that things are just very complicated, and it’s hard to go with private charities alone? I suspect part of your answer would be the plea that yours is a thought-experiment and that the exchanges and micro-exchanges allegedly inherent in private charities make them potentially more efficient. You might also say that the “billionaire-ness” of the thought-experiment can be reduced to millionaires, to hundred-thousand-aires, and to thousand-aires. Or you might revert to the point, which you allude to in the post and in some of your comments here, that the true (or at least most efficient) service a rich person can render the indigent is to use his or her money in a way so as to encourage job creation.

          All of which are serviceable answers, even though I’m skeptical. But neither New Dealer, nor I, nor Chris, nor Nob, is calling your hypothetical billionaire a monster nor if I read them correctly, are they (we) arguing that we need to bind people together and that private charity too quickly endorses atomistic society.Report

          • BlaiseP in reply to Pierre Corneille says:

            FWIW, you’ve gotten me right.

            The Libertarians do not understand the philanthropists, nor do they understand the role of the state as every person’s proxy to every other person through the mechanisms of the justice system and the safety net. There is no telling them anything: their axioms categorically exclude the state occupying a beneficial role in their own lives and by extension, anyone else’s life. Society is a monster to them. And like most monsters, it is an entirely mythical creature. Myths are not lies, they are explanations hidden within stories.

            Carnegie once said a man should divide his life into three parts: learning as much as he can, making as much money as he can, then doing as much good as he can with that money. He who dies rich dies disgraced.

            I grow increasingly angry at the consistent misrepresentation of liberal ideals.Report

            • Jaybird in reply to BlaiseP says:

              I grow increasingly angry at the consistent misrepresentation of liberal ideals.

              Try to have a sense of humor about other people misrepresenting your philosophy.

              That’s what I do.Report

            • James Hanley in reply to BlaiseP says:

              I grow increasingly angry at the consistent misrepresentation of liberal ideals.

              A thousand points of irony.Report

            • Blaise P.

              Thanks for the comment. I should say that I don’t fully sign on to your representation of libertarians, although in some posts that I read at the League, the shoe seems to fit. Some libertarians I have encountered sincerely like to engage, rather than sloganeer against, liberals like me, and I often find my own self come up wanting. At the very least, I tend to see (honest) libertarians as te conscience that social democrats like myself need to prevent us from diving into the cliff of state-worship.Report

        • DensityDuck in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

          “I am quite confident that I have encountered the argument before to the effect that private charity is inferior to state-provided charity…because government charity binds us together as a society in a way that private charity can’t.” (emphasis added)

          I have to agree with the other posters that I haven’t seen the emphasized statement advanced as an argument.

          I do, on the other hand, regularly see arguments along the lines of “private charity is religiously-inspired and is therefore wrong!” or “private charity picks and chooses its recipients and is therefore wrong!” or even the (inadvertently, I’m sure) Randian “private charity is more about rich people’s self-aggrandizement than about actual social benefit, and is therefore wrong!”

          So while “government brings us together, individuals set us apart, even when the individuals are doing what government does” isn’t common, it’s not as though there aren’t people arguing against private charity.Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Chris says:

        I think those monsters exist, though likely in far lower quantities here at the LoOG than in other circles.Report

    • Jason Kuznicki in reply to Nob Akimoto says:

      That government programs exist is a testament to inertia, not to need. At one time it seemed obviously true to a governing majority that private aid couldn’t do enough — and that it would fall short by… well, by as much as the current welfare state now provides.

      I find that preposterous. I also find that enough time has passed between the time when this claim seemed true and the present day that it’s perhaps worth other people reexamining too. We’ve come to a fairly strong social consensus that welfare reform worked, and that was a step away from dependence on government. Why not try a bit further in that direction?Report

      • E.C. Gach in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

        “We’ve come to a fairly strong social consensus that welfare reform worked, and that was a step away from dependence on government. ”

        A most unfortunate development, at least for the remaining dissenters. Work for welfare obviously doesn’t *work* when there’s no work available.

        “That government programs exist is a testament to inertia, not to need.”

        Part of the issue is that people move up and down the socio economic ladder. So even as some are helped out, others will fall in (hence why it’s a saftey net). So it’s definitely important to track the population of participants that can’t ever seem to get out…just so long as we don’t see the persistence of say, food stamps, as a sign of inertia rather than addressing the need, as it arises.Report

        • James Hanley in reply to E.C. Gach says:


          Have you ever wondered if the reason the unemployment rate is so high is that we’re counting more people in our workforce? That is, people who a generation ago would have been just as unemployed, but would both be on welfare and not counted in the employment figures? Perhaps a generation ago, today’s economic environment would have an acceptable unemployment rate of 5.5-6%?Report

          • E.C. Gach in reply to James Hanley says:

            Why wouldn’t they have been counted before?

            Because they weren’t seeking work? Because it didn’t take two working parents to provide for a middle class household and pension funds made it easier to retire rather than leave your normal job to spend the last 5 years selling tickets at the movie theater?Report

          • DensityDuck in reply to James Hanley says:

            “Have you ever wondered if the reason the unemployment rate is so high is that we’re counting more people in our workforce?”

            The government certainly thinks so, which is why when people stop looking for jobs–that is, exit the workforce–it’s considered a reduction in the unemployment rate.Report

      • This is sloppy coming from you, Jason.

        Have we really come to a strong social consensus that welfare reform worked?

        How are we defining as “worked”? As being acceptable for the “welfare recipients are lazy bums” crowd? Or as actual poverty reduction metrics relative to the expenditure reductions? Because by the policy metrics of “welfare reform” the jury is still out on the matter.

        There’s no shortage of charitable organizations that try to make up the gaps that exist in government safety net provisions. They are, by and large, insufficient. And this is just in a US-centric perspective.

        The only places where private charity makes up the bulk of the safety net provisions for the needy are generally places where state capacity is so low that outside donors have to step in in a big way to do things like provide nutrition or medicine. Even then, it’s not at a scale that would be matched by a properly functioning state.

        Hell, even in the most basic sense an anti-safety net state like Singapore still has to have basic provision of certain welfare causes (albeit grudgingly) because private charity hasn’t managed to fill that gap. And if ever there was a place that should 1. have the wealth, 2. the societal cohesion and 3. odiously difficult to obtain welfare system combination that would allow for a strong private charity regime to flourish, that would be it.Report

      • Kimmi in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

        Welfare reform worked most excellently.
        Shall I pull the statistics on family farms?
        Because that, by the numbers, is what it destroyed.Report

      • “That government programs exist is a testament to inertia, not to need.”

        I’d say that’s part of the issue. But I suspect it’s not the whole of it.Report

      • Scott Fields in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

        That government programs exist is a testament to inertia, not to need.

        Can you unpack this a little bit, Jason? This assertion strikes me as completely ahistorical.Report

    • James Hanley in reply to Nob Akimoto says:

      The fact that government programs exist at the moment is a testament to need.

      Whose need?Report

    • NewDealer in reply to Nob Akimoto says:

      A plusReport

  3. BlaiseP says:

    Earn more money? An excellent proposition. Just try it sometime. You’ll have to earn it in ways you might not find entirely wonderful — but money is power. And having enough of it to give away to worthy causes, as I do, will disabuse you of certain fatuous ideas such as the overlap of public assistance and private philanthropy. They don’t overlap.

    You’ll need an education in philanthropy. You seem entirely ignorant of the subject but please don’t take that as an insult, it’s always best to start with the position of ignorance. And oh, by the way, nobody ever thinks he’s rich. And here’s another little secret, nobody ever thinks he’s poor, either. There are always outliers on the bell curve, both richer and poorer.

    Philanthropy is the last, best refuge of reward in life. Once your needs have been satisfied, and these are surprisingly few, you’ll be able to direct your extra earnings to worthy causes. Don’t give money to any person or organisation without first obtaining their latest financial statements. Go out to see what your money’s buying: there are poverty pimps who will tell you anything you want to hear. Having eaten the bread of charity myself, as a missionary kid and refugee worker, there are organisations who do not deserve your money. Make sure your money goes where you want it to go: directed donations are how this is managed.

    We are all dependent upon the government. It’s undeniable. From 911 services to public schools to parks and every other useful thing provided by municipal, county, state and federal government, our society would collapse. Of course, as a Libertarian, you’ll never, ever admit to such a concept, either in principle or theory.

    Posing a hypothetical about philanthropy is not merely silly. It’s stupid. Try it sometime, you don’t have to be rich to be a philanthropist. It’s the only route to enlightenment. It will dispel all sorts of weak thinking, especially of the sort which is annoyed in the absence of any working knowledge of either philanthropy or social needs. Every religion knows this is true. The Buddhists aren’t a religion, strictly speaking, but they know it. You don’t have to believe in God or anything really. You just have to believe in something beyond yourself. Your fellow man would be an excellent start.Report

  4. E.C. Gach says:

    Also, does the second point you make not apply to government programs when they are the means to that end instead?Report

  5. clawback says:

    The text of this post fails to address the question raised in the title.Report

    • Jason Kuznicki in reply to clawback says:

      On the contrary, it addresses both moral and economic crowd-out.

      Government charity is better, because it binds us together as a nation and enacts our collective responsibility together — so say people on the left. Taxes are voluntarily given, in this sense, and people are happy about it, or so I am assured.

      On the right, folks are shrewd enough to notice the economic sense of the crowd-out, which makes private acts of charity like my hypothetical tantamount to just reducing the budget deficit.Report

      • Chris in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

        You’re giving an entirely different “leftist” position in comments than in the post:

        In the post:
        “You’re making them personally dependent on you, and that’s terribly undignified.”

        In the comments:
        Government charity is better, because it binds us together as a nation and enacts our collective responsibility together

        These aren’t necessarily contradictory, but they aren’t at all the same thing. Or if they are, you’re going to have to show me your translation, because I can’t see it. But first, I want an example of both, please.Report

        • Jason Kuznicki in reply to Chris says:

          Well, okay. I don’t have much time at the moment, but here goes.

          We find personal servants as being in somewhat of an undignified position. So much so that people, even the very wealthy, have a lot fewer of them than in previous eras. Personal dependence on the will of another is often (though admittedly not always) talked about in ways that suggest it is deeply undignified.

          Being dependent on the government? There is a very large political movement, the progressives, who don’t even see this as dependency. It’s noble, it’s wonderful, that we can provide these things for the indigent through the state. And not a word is ever said about their dignity, as if it would be impolite even to bring it up.

          But it shouldn’t be. All other things being equal, I think that if private charity could provide to the same degree, then it ought to. Can it? I have no idea. Can we move incrementally in that direction? Perhaps.Report

          • Chris in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

            OK, see, it’s much better when you put it like this. No liberals are arguing what you say they are in the original post, but you see it as an implication of their position. I think to some extent, it’s probably right (even if, again, it’s pretty much unrelated to your backwards interpretation of the liberal position in this comment section), though I don’t think many liberals would see private charity as a form of dependency unless strings are attached.Report

          • Dignity is only an issue because a certain vocal segment of the wealthy population love to make it one by talking about distinctions of charity, the deserving and undeserving poor and all sorts of other nonsensical divides meant to humiliate and demean the people who are receiving aid. Even the term “dependency” is loaded.

            As for serving people, there’s a difference between being a Baldrick and being a Reginald Jeeves.Report

          • BlaiseP in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

            The reason we don’t have personal servants these days is pretty obvious: our convenience machines have become status symbols and have been since the first reliable 110 motors entered service. Try living without those things, you’ll find the proposition of servants is still as viable as ever.

            People with children do have nannies or day care facilities. We depend on a host of ad-hoc servitude: look in your refrigerator, the salad and vegetables especially. Manual labour, all of it. Some Mexican hitched up the milker so you could have a gallon in the fridge.

            You’re served by hundreds of people you have never seen. You’re completely dependent on those people staying out of sight to preserve your illusion of self-determination. It’s actually worse now than in the Gilded Age. Those people had names back then. If they ate at the kitchen table and not in the dining room, they were actual people.Report

            • Jason Kuznicki in reply to BlaiseP says:

              Look, I’ve read “I, Pencil.” We’ve discussed it here in the past on several occasions. I’m not unaware of these things.

              It seems absurd however to deny that large segments of the population who could hire personal valets, chauffeurs, and the like still refrain from doing so. I think that’s a function of changing cultural values about autonomy and dignity. Those cultural values are no doubt often wildly inconsistent, and you’re not wrong to point it out. But your explanation for the lack of personal servants is otherwise completely inadequate. At least until self-driving cars, fully-automated-do-no-work-at-all-gourmet-kitchens and personal-dressing-robots arrive.Report

              • BlaiseP in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

                I, Pencil isn’t germane. We’re talking about personal servants and human dignity, nu? Why would anyone want a personal valet, really? I get my shirts and suits cleaned and put into lovely plastic bags and the kitties play with ’em and it’s all just so goddamn convenient. I don’t need a chauffeur, I enjoy driving for the most part and I don’t drive at all in cities I hate, I can get a limo and I call it a business expense and have a few nips of scotch from the bottle provided in the back, all the way from O’Hell Airport to my hotel.

                And where would I stash all these servants when I don’t need them? Even in the plantation mansions the slaves used separate stairwells. They wanted those people out of sight.

                We’re getting to the self-driving car and we’ve had private conveyance services since the first Sumerians were pulling each other around on carts. We’ve got mixed salad greens in gas-filled bags and Peapod delivers damned near everything. I have to be careful with the dry cleaners: sometimes they put too much starch in my collars.

                Marie Antoinette used to keep a little flock of sheep down by Le Petit Trianon and play at shepherdess. In like manner, we are always out doing something manly with a Large Electrically-Powered Implement from Home Despot.Report

              • DensityDuck in reply to BlaiseP says:

                “Why would anyone want a personal valet, really? I get my shirts and suits cleaned…” (emphasis added)

                er, yeah. Your personal valet doesn’t live in your house, and he isn’t solely yours, but you’ve got one just the same.

                And, y’know, I agree. I prefer to do for myself. But this is what President Obama was driving at when he said “you didn’t build that”–that we sometimes forget just how much of a support structure exists that lets us play at self-sufficiency.Report

            • Patrick Cahalan in reply to BlaiseP says:

              The reason we don’t have personal servants these days is because it is a fucking enormous pain in the ass to employ relatively small numbers of people for personal service.

              We paid our nanny over the table, did social security withholding and the whole nine yards. That process alone told me why people don’t do it.

              If you already employ people, it’s not that big of a deal. If you yourself aren’t an employer, though, it’s most of the headache of running a small business, without a profit stream.Report

              • A friend of mine and his wife hired a nanny over the table, too, and their experience seems to have been pretty close to yours.Report

              • James H. in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

                Sound like a business opportunity. A nanny service-operating like Manpower or Kelly Services-where they take care of all that crap and you pay them and they pay the nanny, instead of you paying the nanny directly. I know there are maid services like that, so I have to assume there must be such a service in any sufficiently large urban area.Report

              • DensityDuck in reply to James H. says:

                “A nanny service-operating like Manpower or Kelly Services”

                And then you get something like California AB/SB889, currently on the Governor’s desk for approval, mandating break time and requiring the provision of meals for persons involved in such businesses.Report

          • Re: servants:

            At Rosh hashannah, my girlfriend and I went to a friend of hers’ house, and they had hired a servant for the evening to give us the food and drinks, etc. I, for one, felt very awkward with a servant in the house. It seemed really undignified in the way that I think Jason’s hypothetical liberals would use the term. And perhaps that’s my own class blindspots* and liberal skulduggery.

            I’m pretty sure our friends–who are easily in the upper class–paid the servant well, But our friends are also very high maintenance, demanding people, and in my opinion didn’t treat this servant with the respect she deserved considering how hard she was working and considering that she is a human being and not a machine. (This is a recurring problem with them. We try not to go out to eat with them b/c they are so rude to the waitstaff.)

            I’m not sure where to go with this. I’m glad the servant has a means of employment, and I don’t know if she finds it undignified. Or if she does, maybe she finds the dignity of earning something to surpass whatever is lost. I’m not sure what the right answer is when it comes to balancing “dignity” with “charity.” Sometimes there are no completely good options.

            *My upbringing was affluent working class, and I am probably now somewhere in the middle-class, but not in the “almost everyone is middle class” sense.Report

      • clawback in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

        Except you presented the private donations to charity as a hypothetical. In comments, you told us in reality you wouldn’t engage in such charity, but would instead spend or invest your wealth. Thus any crowding out relies on some trickle-down mechanism, the plausibility of which is unlikely to be persuasive to anyone not already convinced.Report

        • Jason Kuznicki in reply to clawback says:

          I wouldn’t do it because (a) I find the conservative case given in the OP quite persuasive and (b) I think it’s perhaps a better thing to provide jobs than to provide charity, particularly in the current economic climate.

          But those are both judgment calls to a very high degree, and I can easily imagine someone disagreeing with either or both.Report

  6. KatherineMW says:

    The difference is that coming from you, it’s charity. The principle that underlies, or that should underlie, government programs, is not one of charity but of social solidarity. It’s the principle that we should all look after each other, that we all have responsibilities to each other; if you’re going through a hard time you’ll get support, and maybe another time it’ll be me who needs support. For things like Social Security and health care, it’s the principle that we all, as a society, have a responsibility to see that people don’t lack for basic needs (like health care and the ability to retire when they’re old). It’s not about benevolence. It’s about community. The people who are receiving these services aren’t any less equal or “worthy” than those who aren’t, any more than parents who have children in the public school system are less “worthy” than single people who don’t.Report

    • Jason Kuznicki in reply to KatherineMW says:

      See, this is what I was getting at. Social solidarity. Chris, are you reading this?Report

      • Chris in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

        I am, and she’s not saying what you think she’s saying. You’re getting the causal direction wrong: government doesn’t bind us together; we have government, and we use government for social programs, because we are bound together. I see now what you’re doing, though. It’s just poor reading.Report

        • Chris in reply to Chris says:

          That sounds overly harsh. I don’t think you’re reading it poorly because you’re a bad reader (I think it’s quite clear that you’re not). I think you’re reading it poorly because of your own biases. You see the goal of liberalism and leftism as more government, and therefore when you read liberal and left arguments, you start with government and move from there, whereas actual leftists and liberals tend to think in the other direction. So when you read “because we are a community, we use the government of that community to distribute social programs,” you interpret it as, “because there is a government that distributes social programs, we are a community.”Report

          • Jason Kuznicki in reply to Chris says:

            Well, no.

            I agree with you that the left sees us as a community, as all in this together, and they think that that’s great.

            I agree with them. It is great. But I don’t think it legitimates nearly as much state action as they think it does. The fact that we’re all in a society together does not mean that government gets a free pass in the way they seem to think that it often does.Report

            • Chris in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

              Oh, I get that you disagree. I’m just pointing out that they’re not saying what you say they’re saying in this comment section.

              And I’ll note again, what you say they’re saying in this comment section is different from what you say they’re saying in the post.Report

      • Dan Miller in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

        Notice, though, that she’s not criticizing you for offering the charity.Report

    • E.C. Gach in reply to KatherineMW says:

      KatherineMW, between this and the comment on Kowal’s post, you rockin.Report

  7. Mike Dwyer says:

    Jason – loved this post.

    Second, playing devil’s advocate here (because I agree 100% with your premise)…how would you select participants in your program? Would you attempt to spread that money across races, gender, age, etc?

    I am going to assume the liberal critique of that program would be that only the government can ensure a fair distribution of assistance funds, however, in their defense I haven’t heard much criticism from the Left when Bill Gates or someone like him spend money on the causes of their choice.

    I would also agree with Kimmi though. Give the people a job. THe WPA seems more and more brilliant the more I think about it.Report

    • BlaiseP in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

      Not really. The only way government can run a social program is to set up arbitrary criteria, ergo, fair. I’m telling y’all, it’s a sign of ignorance that such things have to be explained to self-styled capitalists.Report

      • Jason Kuznicki in reply to BlaiseP says:

        The only way government can run a social program is to set up arbitrary criteria, ergo, fair.

        “Arbitrary” and “fair” are commonly employed as antonyms. I literally have no idea what you mean here. Care to enlighten me, o wise one?Report

        • BlaiseP in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

          That’s just obtuse and you know it. Arbitrary is Medicare or Medicaid requirements. Arbitrary is a mental health ruling so a schizophrenic can get a bed in a mental health clinic.

          In the English language, not Libertarian-ese, arbitrary means someone makes a rule or a law and someone else has to make it apply, as a judge might apply a law made by a legislator.Report

          • Murali in reply to BlaiseP says:

            Actualyy that’s not the commomn use of the word arbitrary though it may have been its common use sometime in the distant past before I was born. By the time Rawls rights theory of justice, arbitrary is used in its current sense. Rawls says that people don’t deserve their welath because it is often gained as a result of traits which are arbitrary from a moral point of view.*

            *That brief paragraph basically kicked off a whole school of political philosophy called luck egalitarianism where people are to be compensated for the bad luck they cannot avoid (like a lack of native talents) but not for the risks that they choose to take.Report

            • BlaiseP in reply to Murali says:

              Arbitrary is of practical use any time we use a variable. f(x) means x is an arbitrary value, and that’s in present usage. The very idea, that we have words like arbitrage and arbiter and such words in the English language and I can’t use “arbitrary” in this sense. Jeebus Crispus. Even in its most open definition, it does imply a judgement call, as is the word “fair”, another judgement call word.Report

              • Jason Kuznicki in reply to BlaiseP says:

                Murali understands what I’m getting at. “Arbitrary” is usually meant in the sense that things might have happened otherwise, or need not have been the way they were, or need not continue that way in the future. One’s personal genetics are from a moral stance arbitrary — and thus in a very important (and not ideologically libertarian) sense unfair.

                “Rational” might be the word you’re looking for, not arbitrary. To be rational is to conform to a rule. And thus to be predictable. Compliance with Medicare eligibility rules is in this sense rational. (We might find that the rules themselves are irrational when we attempt to fit them to some other, larger set of rules, but that’s an unrelated question.)

                So anyway, I might also come up with eligibility criteria, and they might also be rational in both the senses that Medicare seeks to be — my rules might be something someone could predictably follow, with predictable outcomes; and they might be rational in the higher sense that they conform to the rule stated at the outset of the program, to help the needy.Report

              • BlaiseP in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

                Oh just stop while you’re ahead: allow me to requote: The only way government can run a social program is to set up arbitrary criteria, ergo, fair.

                Arbitrary criteria. Not one for me and another for thee. Ergo, fair. Rational, my ass, rationality implies I’m reaching a conclusion based on facts, not applying an arbitrary standard, as in a legal criterion. This Libertarian-ese, I swear, I’ve said it a million times, between the Marxists and the Libertarians, they’ve re-defined every useful word in the language to their own ends and insist on us using their terminology.Report

              • MikeSchilling in reply to BlaiseP says:

                I was thinking “neutral”, as is “neutral principles”.Report

            • Murali in reply to Murali says:

              Dear God, I just re-read what I wrote. Did I seriously write “Rawls rights theory of justice” instead of “Rawls writes theory…” And not to mention my other typos.Report

          • James Hanley in reply to BlaiseP says:

            In the English language, not Libertarian-ese, arbitrary means someone makes a rule or a law and someone else has to make it apply, as a judge might apply a law made by a legislator.

            That’s ridiculous. Arbitrary means without any justified guiding principal. It closely aligns with capricious, as in the legal term “arbitrary and capricious.” We makes laws dictating what criteria bureaucrats must apply precisely to avoid arbitrary decision-making.

            And to top it off, Blaise has to throw in a gratuitous swipe at libertarians to try to make his point, as though the legal and bureaucratic uses of the term “arbitrary” were libertarian uses. Piling nonsense upon nonsense only makes the (pseudo)intellectual edifice every more shaky.Report

            • BlaiseP in reply to James Hanley says:

              Arbitrary means I don’t use my own judgement but that of some guideline. “The rule says 98, ma’am and you’re at 99. Sorry, no can do.” As for any gratuitous swipes, when your enemy’s shooting himself in the foot, keep on feeding him ammunition. What a load of pedantic bullshit.Report

              • James H. in reply to BlaiseP says:

                Your example is the opposite of arbitrary. Rule-boundedness is the opposite of arbitrary because it creates a determined outcome.

                Dictionary definition (from Free Online Dictionary):

                1. Determined by chance, whim, or impulse, and not by necessisty,reason, or principle:
                2. Based on or subject to individual judgment or preference.

                But what do the dictionary writers know? They obviously forgot to consult Blaise.Report

              • BlaiseP in reply to James H. says:

                Erm, the larger question is, why does it matter so much to you, Hanley? Do you not understand the nature of arbitrariness? If the speed limit is 35, knowing you, I’m sure you’d earnestly tell the policeman the speed limit is not based on necessity, reason or principle. Feel free to bicker with him for half an hour. He won’t care.

                And I won’t either. It’s an arbitrary limit.Report

              • Patrick Cahalan in reply to BlaiseP says:

                It can be.

                That doesn’t necessarily mean that it is.Report

              • BlaiseP in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

                Now you’re sposta be a math guy. If I say “Let X be an arbitrary floating point number”, what am I saying here? You get to choose, my function has to cope with any possible choice you might make.

                The speed limit is 35. The sign says so. There’s no arguing with it.Report

              • Patrick Cahalan in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

                Well, there’s math and then there’s computational science. 🙂

                The speed limit is 35, but the reason why the speed limit is 35 might be capricious and it might not be. In some places, urban planners actually *do* study accident rates and whatnot and adjust speed limits accordingly (to encourage the least pessimum safe driving speed). Other times, they’re just speed traps.

                A mathematician wouldn’t say, “Choose an arbitrary number”, they’d say, “Choose a random number”, because (as James points out) a number “determined by chance, whim, or impulse” is likely to be more than somewhat less than random (people are terrible random number generators).

                We’re now buried under a huge morass of only marginally relevant semantics. It must be Tuesday.Report

              • James H. in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:


                Which all makes me wonder how a random number generator actually works. The software must have some very definite, principle based rules, right? But What rule leads to a randomly selected outcome? (I once read that a lot of RNGs don’t actually work that well unless you chang the seed, too.)

                I do understand those random number generators we call dice. I think my mind works better with purely mechanical devices than in software universe.Report

              • Patrick Cahalan in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

                Random number generators in software aren’t necessarily entirely dependent upon software, they can take numerous inputs from hardware (see here for an example). The better ones do this.

                A lot of random number generators provided in software libraries are actually terrible, because they’re built to be generalizable and hardware-independent and thus aren’t random enough for things like cryptography, and some programmer called them when they really should not have.

                You see this all the time in security announcements, where some programming languages’ library collection contains a crappy random number generator that someone used (unfortunately) for something that required much better security. Some service is cracked, and the patch includes a better PRNG (pseudo-random number generator).

                The trick isn’t to actually produce a truly random output, it’s to produce an output that is statistically similar to random output.

                If you fail at that, your cryptographic algorithm loses bits of entropy, and becomes vulnerable to practical brute-force attacks that would otherwise be contraindicated.Report

              • DensityDuck in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

                And, if all else fails, you can just pick them out of a book.Report

              • MikeSchilling in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

                You can also depend on things that are non-reproducible, like the current time, the current memory usage on the machine, the ID of the current process (very roughly speaking, how many programs have been run since the computer was last booted), etc. Probably not good enough for heavy security, but works for other purposes (like generation of unique-enough IDs.).Report

              • James H. in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

                Thanks. The hardware/random noise business is fascinating. Brilliant solution.Report

              • DensityDuck in reply to BlaiseP says:

                ” the larger question is, why does it matter so much to you, Hanley?”

                I think this is as close to “you’re right, I was wrong” as we’re ever likely to get.Report

              • James H. in reply to DensityDuck says:

                Heh. Well said.Report

              • BlaiseP in reply to DensityDuck says:

                Duck, you’re the farthest thing from right this place has seen since ol’ Bob Cheeks left.Report

              • DensityDuck in reply to DensityDuck says:

                oh, ice burn.Report

              • James H. in reply to BlaiseP says:

                If you think speed limits are set arbitrarily, without reference to reason, necessity or principle, you’re not informed about public policy making. Here’s a report to the Connecticut General Assembly overviewing how they set speed limits. All states will have something similar.

                As to why I care, it’s because I don’t really like you and it amuses me to mock you when you employ your overbearing arrogance in the service of evident error. If you ever change I’ll have to look for another source of amusement.Report

              • DensityDuck in reply to James H. says:

                The fun part is that, at least where I live, if the speed limit hasn’t got an engineering survey backing it up with drivers’ typical measured speeds, then it’s not legal to write speeding tickets for that particular street.

                (Obviously there are a lot of subtleties and special cases, but the point is that it’s the exact opposite of anything you could call “arbitrary”.)Report

              • Will Truman in reply to James H. says:

                Duck, there is a lawyer back home where all he does is traffic tickets and he makes a mint. One of his specialties is that he knows and can get all of the traffic studies, will call traffic engineers to challenge them, and so on. That’s not the only trick up his sleeve, but it’s one of them and it’s a pretty big one. Municipalities are really reluctant to go to trial over a speeding ticket fine when this guy is involved. So stuff gets dismissed.Report

              • BlaiseP in reply to James H. says:

                Not informed, eh? What a condescending pantload. I drive through two towns, about the same size, Augusta and Fall Creek. Augusta’s speed limit in town is 25. Fall Creek is 30. That’s arbitrary.

                So hey, Little Professor, just you riddle me why this might be so. Could it be Arrrrbitrary? Or is there some reasoning involved? Jackass.Report

              • James H. in reply to James H. says:

                I love hiw pissy you get, despite claiming not to care what I think. But, yes, you’re still wrong, and your increasing pissiness is making this all the more entertaining to me. Thank you; I appreciate it.

                Why isn’t the speed limit in either town 45 mph? Or 10 mph? Because the limits aren’t simply arbitrary. There’s a constraining range within which they can reasonably choose, so while the actual choice between 25 or 30 might be arbitrary, the selection of the set of reasonable speeds from which the final speed can be chosen is not. So, some degree of arbitrariness? Sure, but it’s only at the margin, only from within a non-arbitrarily constrained set.

                But I’ll give you credit for this much–at least you’re applying the term accurately now.Report

      • Mike Dwyer in reply to BlaiseP says:

        Blaise – you say “Not really,” but I don’t know what you are refering to in my comment.Report

        • BlaiseP in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

          Richelieu and the Rope. In the days of the Sun King, France was trying to play catch-up with Great Britain on the high seas. Sailing ships need miles of rope. So Richelieu set the poor of France to making rope. It damned near bankrupted all the market-space rope makers. They petitioned the King, who summoned Richelieu. Richelieu realised his error: the truth is, for every worthwhile job created by the State, one legitimate job is subtracted from the market.

          The WPA and CCC and suchlike created jobs in the public sector: building roads and national parks. It got money moving in the economy and got men off the roads, drifting from town to town in search of work. FDR inoculated Capitalism with a dose of Socialism in order to save it.

          We will never know how things would have worked out: other nations such as Germany and Italy and Japan had risen from the Depression by enlisting the men into gargantuan armies. The American economy turned to a war footing as well: we never saw the endgame of the WPA model. SCOTUS had been attacking all such efforts, as well.

          I sternly disapprove of make-work schemes. We’re honestly better off as a capitalist economy with a strong social safety net. If they’re not doing a real job, give the poor an education or vocational training or something of that sort: invest in them as we might think of home improvement or any other scheme where public moneys are applied to make things better, not create Poverty Pits from which the poor cannot climb. One such Poverty Pit is the provision for health insurance for the children of the indigent: if the head of household gets a job, that insurance is lost. It’s a powerful incentive to stay out of the workforce.

          The Paradox of Richelieu and the Rope can also be applied to philanthropy. You mention Bill Gates: he’s thrown so much money into malaria research he’s starting to create problems. To his credit, Bill Gates recognises this has become a problem: he’s a numbers guy and ruthlessly pragmatic. See, here’s another thing about philanthropy: it’s far better if it’s supported by many small donors and not one large one. Even if that One Large Donor has the best of intentions, such a relationship always creates problems.

          So if you want a working society, if you want people to have jobs, recognise three things:

          1. Not everyone is qualified for the jobs available. Solution: train people or attract industries which might have needs congruent with the workforce.

          2. If society is to fund a safety net, it must do triage.

          2a. Some people will never work: the elderly and infirm, the insane, other such people. Some provision must be made for them.

          2b. Some people are marginally employed: they do shift work and they might be sent home if all the orders have been filled. They come in and out of the work force. Current state unemployment schemes often fill in the gaps but they too would benefit from the safety net.

          2c. Some people are gainfully employed, full time. They need the safety net, too. No job is permanent, not any more: they need health coverage just like everyone else. They’re paying for this society with their taxes: they should at least get as much benefit from the safety net as the poorest. That gap is where fundamental problems arise and where the hard-hearted can always rouse up anger and resentment. Anyone, rich or poor or in-between, should be able to walk into a free health clinic and get their kid’s boo-boo sutured up.

          3. The government ought to be far more accountable to the people than it is at present, especially the federal government. Perversely, this will require more bureaucracy at a local level. We can compensate for it by having less bureaucracy in Washington. The best model for this is the USDA farm bureaus, all over farming country, local outposts of federal government, with boots in dusty fields. And we need far more coordination with the state governments and I do not mean these block grants. The reason Americans resent Socialism and think it such a great evil is clear: the Chinese have a proverb about trouble: tian gao huang-di yuan == Heaven is high and the Emperor is far away. The reason socialism works elsewhere, where it works at all, it’s seen as a local mechanism, not something administered from Washington.

          If America’s gotten so stupid that has gotten to the point where it conflates federal programs with charity, something has gone seriously wrong.Report

          • Patrick Cahalan in reply to BlaiseP says:

            I liked this comment.Report

          • MikeSchilling in reply to BlaiseP says:

            FDR inoculated Capitalism with a dose of Socialism in order to save it.

            For which the capitalists have never forgiven him. You might recall that when the Republicans in Congress wanted to replace FDR with Reagan on the dime, Nancy Reagan asked them to desist, because she knew that her husband was a great admirer of his predecessor. Yet another example of Reagan being too liberal for today’s GOP.Report

          • Kolohe in reply to BlaiseP says:

            One thing that needs to be explained is why make work schemes to build roads and bridges and things don’t seem to work, while make work schemes to blow up roads and bridges and things and people seem to do. That is, why can a 12 million man (real) army stop a depression while a (smaller and not real) army of workers in the WPA, CCC, etc cannot? Was it the sheer size of the war effort? The sense of common purpose that the war effort brought? The sense of common purpose that enabled the sustainment of something the sheer size of the war effort? (my inclination is this last one – also helped keep debt financing costs down).Report

            • Nob Akimoto in reply to Kolohe says:

              Sheer size of the war effort plus the sheer SCALE of the command economics involved that rationed everything from aluminum to toilet paper and imposed tight price and wage controls.

              When you can remove a whole lot of excess labor to a battlefield and then at the same time expropriate large swaths of industry to build precisely the amount of demand you’re setting as a target, it’s a lot easier to make your economy look better.Report

              • James H. in reply to Nob Akimoto says:

                Key word being “look.”. That doesn’t mean the economy actually is better. When consumer goods are exceedingly scarce and twelve million men are unable to go home to their families even once a week, it might be a bit of a stretch to say that economy is “good,” even though it might be necessary.Report

            • gregiank in reply to Kolohe says:

              The WPA and CCC did work. They employed lots of people and built lots of useful stuff. Good job. High five. They didn’t end the depression, were they actually supposed to end the depression or just do what they did do. Get people working by doing useful stuff.Report

            • BlaiseP in reply to Kolohe says:

              It’s not clear WPA and CCC didn’t work. We didn’t see the experiment finish up. The economy was recovering before the war began. Money was moving in the economy, hiring in the civilian sector was picking up. But it’s hard to parse out the onset of the war in the 30s, when the UK was still paying in gold, from what happened in 1941, when they started in with Lend-Lease.

              The economy went through a spasm after WW2. Eisenhower began the Interstate Highway system in the mid-50s, justifying it with strategic necessity, invoking the Cold War. He spent a great deal of money on it, 25 billion in 1956 dollars. Hard to say that wasn’t a good investment, all things considered. The Feds imposed fuel taxes and they were paid for in short order. They’ve been a great benefit to the nation.

              There’s something to this Size business you alluded to. If the Feds are going to get involved in something, it had best be of titanic proportions. Little stuff, the Feds tend to screw it up, but with really big things, they do good work.Report

          • Morat20 in reply to BlaiseP says:

            For every government job, a private job is destroyed is only true at full employment.

            It may sound like a minor quibble, but it is actually a very large and important distinction.Report

            • Patrick Cahalan in reply to Morat20 says:

              The “worthwhile” was hiding some stuff behind it.Report

            • BlaiseP in reply to Morat20 says:

              That simply isn’t true. No make-work scheme ever actually created jobs. There’s a difference between the government paying a private firm to make rope — and having a Government Rope Making Department.Report

              • Morat20 in reply to BlaiseP says:

                Perhaps if you’re using some strange, personal definitions of “job” and “make-work” and the like. I’m not sure how you are defining things.

                According to standard economic parlance, however, government jobs are exactly like any other jobs. There is no difference. Jobs are jobs.

                Government jobs crowd out private jobs at full employment due to simple supply and demand —- the government is an additional source of demand for a scarce supply of workers, bidding up the price of labor. Which can lead to all sorts of things, most of them not terribly good. (It’s a bit more complex — some government jobs are necessary, full employment or not)

                However, in slack employment situations you have a large, idle workforce — workers with no jobs to perform. Government work — of the New Deal style — is therefore a boon, rather than a drag, on the economy.

                A policeman is a government employee. His job is real. 70+ years ago, a crew of men building roads or forest service stations under the New Deal was a government employee. His job was real.

                He worked, he was paid. There is no difference between his job and a private job, except for the fact that in 1937 the government was far more equipped to borrow and spend than private business was.Report

              • BlaiseP in reply to Morat20 says:

                Richelieu hired only the poor. Rope making was a low-skill job. He set up operations all over France and flooded the market with rope. He wasn’t paying for the rope, he was paying the poor to make rope.

                The government ought not employ anyone competing with a private sector. That much is simply too obvious to contest. A policeman has no competition in the private sector. There was no competition to build the national parks: even if there were, they would have been paid from national money.

                CCC and WPA didn’t attempt to build homes or factories. They steered clear of all such jobs.Report

  8. Mike Schilling says:

    Why not? It worked so well during the Depression.Report

  9. damon says:

    I don’t think anyone can saw what would be the situation if gov’t charity was taken away. It’s kinda of an unknown how people would behave, assuming they got the money previously taxed no longer take out of the checks.

    If I had a billion, I’d actually use it a bit more efficiently. I’d hire people to dig up dirt on politicians and people with influence and use that info to my advantage, putting my people in power. We’d get some things fixed baby. 🙂Report

  10. First, I don’t find dependence on the government even a tiny bit more admirable. If anything, it’s worse, because I personally am not putting any strings on my offer, and because I do see a corruption of our political process in the pandering done to get entitlement recipients’ votes. Making a person dependent on the will of one other person may be undignified (although, if we’re honest, we will readily recognize that we always are, to some extent). Making a person dependent on the incoherent (and rarely and imperfectly expressed) democratic will of several tens of millions isn’t a clear improvement. Neither is making them dependent on the political means or the perverse internal logic of bureaucracies.

    Well, you point out some of the problems of relying on the state for social welfare. And you’re right. These are real problems.

    But there’s a tradeoff. State-provided aid comes with, or can come with, the notion that what is received is received, if not by right, then by a systematic procedure in which the strings attached do not imply a beholdenness to the benevolence of a given billionaire. In one case, “the poor” hope for a benevolent billionaire; in the other, “the poor” hope for a benevolent state.

    I’m eliding a few points here, I admit. First, I’m not acknowledging your point about the aid being granted in a trust fund–and therefore less likely to be rescinded even if the hypothetical billionaire you change your mind. I do wonder, however, whether private aid is generally granted without strings, or rather, I wonder how onerous the strings are.

    Second, I realize that although “the systematic procedure” I mention might imply a certain sort of “value neutral access to aid,” it could also imply a degrading, bureaucratic “fill-out-the-form-in-triplicate” method that can arguably be little better than the “yes, Mr.Billionnaire, thank you, Mr. Billionnaire” method.

    I use “the poor” in scare quotes above because “the poor” becomes a mantra similar to “the children” or “the teachers” (I live in Chicago) or “small business.” Not being poor and not having ever been truly poor (so far, knock on wood, there but for the grace of god go I), I don’t know what it’s like to live in poverty. I suspect it’s like not having nearly as much as you think you need, and being willing to use all the tools available to you in order to survive. The thought experiment of this post, however, seems less about what tools would work best for “the poor” and more about how offensive it is that “the poor” are treated in a way that contradicts a hypothetical notion of personal “liberty” that not everyone shares and that most admit exists at best as an ideal toward which we can work to get closer but which we will never attain.

    The offense-taking is sincere (even if I side with those who see the “monster”-calling as a bit of a straw man and even if some liberals do indeed call such philanthropic billionaires monsters). And as I acknowledged, I buy the claim that are real problems in the kind of patron-client Democracy that state-directed social welfare schemes can create and have create.

    But if liberals like me are too quick to claim to speak for “the poor” and too quick to endorse a statist solution while ignoring other avenues (and we are, or at least sometimes I am), this discussion isn’t solely about “the poor” even though most members of either side are sincere. It’s about a “liberty project” that offers some good critiques but that must, like all projects, temper its hypotheticals with a consideration for how we get from here to there and with some humility that it might be harder to get there, with intermediary steps that might make things more difficult in the short-term even if the long-term promise is certain, which I wager it’s not.Report

  11. Aaron says:

    Jason, a few questions:

    Do you believe it is realistic that private charity can create a comprehensive safety net in the absence of government intervention?
    If not, should we let the poor and old die in the streets from lack of care?
    If we shouldn’t, what, exactly, is the distinction between your plan and the current system — no one is stopping private charities from setting up institutions such as the one you describe.
    Do you believe the tax burden in the US is so onerous that it prevents private individuals from contributing to charity otherwise?
    What do we do about people who are outside traditional private charity safety nets, i.e., those who don’t have a family, are not religious or who are ethnic or cultural minorities?
    How does your thought experiment differ from 19th Century laissez faire capitalism?Report

    • Jason Kuznicki in reply to Aaron says:

      Do you believe it is realistic that private charity can create a comprehensive safety net in the absence of government intervention?

      Certainly not in the short term. Longer term? I can’t rule it out.

      If not, should we let the poor and old die in the streets from lack of care?

      I don’t think we should, and I am certain that we would not. Even societies that have been vastly poorer than ours and that have lacked a state-provided welfare system have in general been able to avoid this outcome.

      If we shouldn’t, what, exactly, is the distinction between your plan and the current system — no one is stopping private charities from setting up institutions such as the one you describe.

      There’s a good deal of crowd out, as I mentioned. I look at the current welfare state and it seems clear to me (1) that people feel, after paying taxes, that they’ve given at the office so to speak — no need to give again and (2) that there is something un-civic about private philanthropy in cases where that philanthropy is explicitly posed as an alternative to something the state gives away for free. (Giving to private education is yet another example of this type.)

      Do you believe the tax burden in the US is so onerous that it prevents private individuals from contributing to charity otherwise?

      When Social Security proposes to save for you and your dependents? Sure, very clearly so. I admit it’s less clear for the others.

      What do we do about people who are outside traditional private charity safety nets, i.e., those who don’t have a family, are not religious or who are ethnic or cultural minorities?

      Ethnic and cultural minorities have historically gone to great lengths to take care of their own. Charitable associations need not be religious or family-based.

      How does your thought experiment differ from 19th Century laissez faire capitalism?

      I don’t even know where to begin. Perhaps the most obvious points are (1) the 19th century was full of cronyism and government favors to privileged businesses and (2) I’m not advocating that we dismantle all forms of federal income support, nor am I even suggesting that that’s a necessary endpoint.

      What’s the most I would do, if I thought I’d get away with it? A negative income tax/GMI system. Let it operate for a few years in place of the current welfare state before coming to any further conclusions. We might even decide that we like it and that it should remain. Or maybe not. But I’d want to see it in practice for a while and learn from it before doing anything else.Report

  12. Shelley says:

    The government is our only protection against the corporations.Report

    • Stillwater in reply to Shelley says:

      Ya know, I don’t think that’s true. As markets become more complex and varied, and consumer demand can be met with greater ease, market forces (I mean that term broadly here) can act as a safeguard against corporate (or any other individual) malfeasance. Not a complete safeguard, but an increasingly more effective one.

      On the other side of this is the libertarian argument that government often permits corporate malfeasance that otherwise might not have occurred. I’m thinking in particular of legislation in Ohio which would increase the limits of toxic waste dumping in Lake (one of the Great Lakes). Without government protection, I’m not sure that a corporation would willingly act so irresponsibly.

      • James H. in reply to Stillwater says:

        Well said.Report

      • Morat20 in reply to Stillwater says:

        I live next to one of the larger refining centers in America. In Texas. I can assure you, with deep personal knowledge, that those refineries happily dump toxins into the air.

        Their ONLY calculus is “Is the cost of the EPA fines + any Texas fines (ha!) less than the cost of disposing of this properly?”.

        Since the answer is almost always “yes”. If proper disposal costs, oh, 250,000 dollars a metric ton and flaring it off into the air costs 100,000 dollars an hour but you can dispose of 6 tons an hour….

        Guess which way they go. And the internets and modern markets have not exactly cared.Report

  13. NewDealer says:

    I think societal problems are simply too complex to rely on private charity alone.

    Nob is right. Some people just need help and people are too hung up about this.

    I think private charity worked in a less technologically advanced world because we knew less. We could not diagnosis many diseases and people born with disabilities either had very short lives or were sent off to a vastly inhumane place like Bedlam. Or until very recently were lobotomized.

    Now we can treat serious illness and disability and give people better chances at a life of dignity and decency. The problem is that these treatments are often very expensive and continuous or at least last a long time.

    We also lead very busy lives because of a modern and post-Industrial economy that does not allow us to work close to home or check in at home during the day. My mom said that she used to have lunch at home during elementary school. Where does this happen in the U.S. today? I’ve heard it still happens in Germany (though there school system is very different and there is still a strong culture of the “The Good German mother does not work”).

    During the initial healthcare debates, Tom Coburn, the ultra-conservative Senator from Oklahoma, was confronted by a woman at a townhall. The woman’s husband had a disease or stroke that left him very seriously brain-damaged I believe. The husband now needed near constant supervision/treatment that his wife could not provide because she had to work. Senator Coburn answered with some plattitudes about neighbors helping neighbors.

    This is bullshit. People don’t generally have that sort of time. This is how I often lose respect for many conservative and/or libertarian arguments on the benefits of small government. It simply ignores the complexities of modern life! It is a hodge-podge of wanting it both ways. Conservatives want our modern economy that demands long hours and longish commutes while also praising a utopian village and small town community mentality where everyone helps each other. You can have one or the other but you can’t have both.

    Again as Nob said above. Some people just need help, a lot of help. The problems are often too complex for private charity to handle alone and government is the best way to handle these problems. I don’t see why small government is something to be cherished in the face of the complexity of modern life. Do you really think that private charity can help the mentally ill poor?Report

  14. Tod Kelly says:

    Agnostic-God damnit, I’m supposed to be off the front page until I’m done with my work!!! But I had to chime in here, Jason, because I think you’re badly misjudging the way most people think about charities. For years most of my client base has been non-profit charities, and I can tell you that you are way off on a couple of points:

    1. People that donate large amounts to charities are not held in contempt by society, save for the occasional Right or Left blogger looking for new angles. You may not care for Bill and Melinda Gates, but I can assure you that their work through their foundation is applauded by 98% of everybody, regardless of class, gender, race or creed. In my two decades in my job, I have never seen anyone sneer at a charitable grant they (or anyone else) have gifted.

    2. As I constantly remind people when the subject comes up, government assistance with safety nets did not appear in a vacuum. Most government run social subsidy programs I am aware of, regardless of how effective or efficient they are run, came about because private charity proved to be wholly incapable of addressing the problem. It’s nice to imagine that free market charities will find a way to take care of people with, say, developmental disabilities. However, history shows that they can’t – and they can’t because even though you might agree in theory that most DD children dying at an early age due to insufficient funds for care is terrible, and that something must be done, you won’t give any money to that cause… unless, of course, you have a family member that suffers from such an affliction, in which case you’re going to be using that money yourself. You can argue all day long that it shouldn’t be that way, but I can tell you that before HHS support was mandated, it was that way. That’s why HHS support for the DD population came about in the first place.

    I can assure you that every single non-profit I work with doesn’t view government assistance or funding in their arena as a competitor that is stealing its business. People that have pledged their career to fulfilling a charitable mission care about that mission over and above everything else, including growth and market share. They are also very, very aware that people – even those that support their mission in theory – almost rarely if ever give, and rarely if ever did so back when charity was the sole solution to such problems.Report

    • Dan Miller in reply to Tod Kelly says:

      This exactly, especially your point #2.Report

    • North in reply to Tod Kelly says:

      Indeed, this strikes me as an area where libertarianism is at its weakest primarily because the proposed solution (private charities) was actually in place prior to the implementation of state safety nets. In this area libertarianism was put through its paces in the real world and was found lacking on various levels.

      Historically private charities were huge supporters and advocates for state involvement in their causes. Private safety nets are dependent on private charity of course and during economic contractions the availability of the resources they need diminish exactly when they need them the most.

      Setting aside the question of humanitarianism there’s also the question of practical governance. I think it was Hanley who once put it aptly on this site as “buying off the majority” but safety nets and such support can be argued as necessary simply to convince the masses to buy into the capitalist system. We forget pretty quickly in these days that it was soft socialism that staved off the monster of full on Communism long enough for Communism’s internal contradictions to build up and cause it to implode.

      The only answer to this I’ve read is that we’ve evolved economically, technologically and spiritually as a species so much now that a private charity system would be no-coercively just as (or more) effective than public safety nets but also much more efficient and moral. That’s a remarkable optimistic position in my opinion.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to North says:

        I don’t know if I ever said that, but in general I approve this comment. I would add, though, that I think we have to be careful about assuming the past is like the present. Sure, a totally private solution did not satisfy all need in the past, but 1) the present may be different because there is more wealth per person, so there is more capacity for private charity to fulfill need now, and 2) culture may have changed, or conceivably could change, so that private charity is seen as a more admirable use of one’s extra dollars than in the past.

        I think 1) is undoubtedly true as an empirical matter. 2), however, is much more doubtful (at least at present). I’d like to think of charity as a luxury good, one that people indulge in with larger proportions of their income as their wealth grows. But despite noticeable examples of wealthy people acting that way, I’m not sure it’s true as a general rule.Report

        • North in reply to James Hanley says:

          Yeah James, that was definitly my last paragraphs point.

          You didn’t say specifically this. You were talking, I think in a comment, about how you’d go about building a practical modern society if my memory serves and, having established the fundamentals you got to a step you titled “buying off the masses” which talked about the minimum amounts of safety nets/transfer programs necessary to convince people to buy into the hypothetical society.Report

  15. Kazzy says:

    I pondered something similar here once in discussing anti-poverty matters, primarily with he-who-shall-not-be-named-The-Latter.

    Using soup kitchens as an example, I wondered whether it would make more sense to staff them with some of the folks they sought to help, thereby giving them employment, job skills, a resume builder, etc. rather than with volunteers. This would likely lead to a net decrease in the total number of people served (since money that had previously gone to food would now go to salaries), but if done properly, likely would be a better anti-poverty measure than the traditional model. Now, that question begs a bit as to whether a soup kitchen is intended to actually end poverty or not but, if we are thinking more broadly and abstractly about what the best practices are for helping the poor, it at least seems like a reasonable discussion to have. hwsnbnTL, if I remember correctly, was pretty adamant that my proposal would lead to people starving in the streets.

    Anyway, I tend not to consider anyone a monster for what they do with their money, unless they did truly monstrous things with it (like beating someone with a giant bag of gold coins). But I think it is pretty presumptuous to assume that private charity would be as robust or as efficient as government social welfare programs for many of the reasons already stated. Which isn’t to say we should necessarily accept the status quo; just that I think Jason needs to do a lot more to convince folks who do believe in robust social welfare programs that those would still exist adequately under his model.Report

    • Kolohe in reply to Kazzy says:

      This is something USAID and (the honest) charities that do third world development are taking into account now. Dumping a bunch of food aid on a country puts the local small farmer out of business, and building technically complex infrastructure projects leads them to fall apart when that expertise leaves (and doesn’t put much money in the local economy).

      The real hard part, and the part both USAID and charities still have a problem with, is having enough skill and savy to hire local nationals for development projects such that 1) the pay actually goes to those local nationals and not connected middlemen (who may be local nationals, but are not in need of aid) and 2) that the hires are ‘fair and balanced’ and not all just some clan or tribe or other connected network folks.Report

    • greginak in reply to Kazzy says:

      I’ve never heard anyone say the purpose of soup kitchen or food pantry was eliminate poverty. Their purpose is to feed people. Actually many of them do employ their “customers” when possible. Of course many social service jobs pay slightly less then shite so it’s actually possible to get a homeless person a job in the shelter they have stayed in and not lift them out of poverty if they have children.Report

  16. Alex Knapp says:

    Historical note: the people who pushed the hardest for public welfare were spearheaded by — private charities. Why? Because they lacked the resources to do the job of helping the poor effectively. Reading a lot of the early history of public welfare in the late 19th and 20th centuries is instructive on this point.Report

    • DRS in reply to Alex Knapp says:

      TOTAL WORD TO THIS!!!!! How few people know this.

      I would be very surprised if Jason is actually involved with a private charity beyond the annual Christmas donation. When you see charitable activities up close, you realize that entitlements and charitable activities complement each other, they don’t compete.

      And I’ve worked as a fundraiser in the charitable sector all my career, and I do know this area very well.Report

    • Jason Kuznicki in reply to Alex Knapp says:

      Historical note: the people who pushed the hardest for public welfare were spearheaded by — private charities. Why?

      Because they wanted to run, and in many cases did run, the government programs that they proposed. Rather like the railroad board members really wanting an Interstate Commerce Commission, and then taking it over and running it.Report