By Charity or by Right?

A complex society like ours will always have people who need help meeting life's necessities.  Widows and Orphans, for example.  The handicapped, like people with ADHD.  In one model, Winthrop's model, a decent society (in his case, a Christian society) will take care of the needy as a matter of charity, which means love (L, caritas) and arises in us through the example of Christ. In such a society, those who prosper will thank God for their prosperity and be sure to share with the less fortunate.  The State's role is to take up the slack and provide bare necessities if all else fails.  From the point of view of the recipient, hardly yet a "client," this system has several drawbacks.  For one, the charity may be bountiful or not, but it is not guaranteed.  For another, some of the givers might lord it over the receivers. A person facing hard luck might be made to feel like a moocher or beggar.

The modern, secular state solves the problem by declaring that certain needs provide citizens with natural rights to have them met.  Basic needs like food, housing, education, health, one knows where the list ends....are to be met by the government as a matter of right.  That means that the government will use its coercive powers to get the necessary funds from those able to pay taxes to redistribute to the needy.  From the point of view of the recipient, this system has some advantages.  It is guaranteed.  Your life does not depend on the whims of others.  And since it never was a gift, there is no need for gratitude.  You need tip your hat to no one.

But is the modern system an improvement?  Or does it erode the virtues necessary for a republic or democracy to endure?  Take the case of gratitude.   Where once the receiver of largess owed and felt a debt of gratitude (else why does gratitude exist?) he or she now feels no gratitude, since whatever is received is received by right.  (Never mind asking whence this right.)  I am entitled to my salary because I earn it and have an agreement with my employer about what I will provide and what I will receive.  Since I try to do a good job, I feel am entitled to the money.  It becomes my property and I enjoy full property rights in it. I feel virtuous about my salary.  It is mine. If, however, I slacked off a lot and short-changed the job, I would not be able to feel the same way.

When one thinks about how some snobs looked upon and treated the poor and the working poor, one must conclude that the modern approach is a great improvement.  It attempts to confer dignity and to introduce order and coherence. As Isaiah Berlin had it, the Constitution lists only negative freedoms (what the government may NOT do to you) but we can conceive positive freedoms (the right to do or have something). European socialist societies moved to meed more and more of these positive freedoms by government action, but now that the money is drying up, and we see a slow down and reversa in Europe. Here, the argument runs, we are moving ever closer to the failed models of Eurpope, the PIGS nations (Portugal, Italy, Greece, Spain--all in deep, deep financial trouble).

The down side of the modern as opposed to the tradition way is that it gnaws into private charity. (President Obama would like to delete the tax deductions for charitable giving in the Federal Tax Code, thus effectively reducing what is done privately and increasing what is done by government officials when it comes to good works.) It is a truism that no free society can endure where the people are not virtuous.  Any republic assumes the virtue of its citizens. Policy which reduces this public virtue is suicidal. 

But it is not clear if current policy does reduce virtue.  I am still puzzling.  But I do remember that Plato pointed out that in a democracy (not a republic) "teachers fear their pupils."  Seems to have come true.  And not that long ago even a good New York liberal like Daniel Patrick Moynihan knew that (to paraphrase from memory) "welfare destroys the recipients." (But he always voted to increase it.)

It's a hard one.