Anyone residing on the left has heard it many times before. We shouldn’t reform our distributive institutions to achieve our distributive goals; instead, we should keep the present distributive institutions in place and try through individual charity to achieve what we want. That is, don’t tax the rich and feed the poor. Let the rich keep the money our current system distributes to them, and then leave it up to individuals to decide whether to feed the poor.
Now there are all sorts of issues with this. The most obvious is effectiveness. Charity is not nearly as efficient as building provisions into the official distributive structure; charity is not a guarantee; and the providers of charity can attach strings to receipt of it that we don’t think individuals should have to comply with. But there is a more fundamental problem with this whole line of rhetoric, and it is one I have dealt with extensively on this blog.
Suppose two people are arguing about what the proper social distribution should be. Person 1 thinks it should be X and person 2 thinks it should be Y. Person 1 then turns to person 2 and says, why don’t we just build our institutions to generate distribution X and then you can try your best through charity to get closer to distribution Y. That is, in effect, how the charity argument goes. But if you are clever, you see that person 2 can turn around and say the same thing: no, why don’t we organize our distributive institutions to achieve Y and then you can try through charity to get closer to your preferred distribution, X.
These arguments are identical in form. Unless your mind has been hopelessly captured by the idea that your preferred distribution is the one laid down by God or Nature or whatever, you must concede that these are identical requests. It is absurd then to put on one side of the debate the burden of trying to explain why that side shouldn’t just use charity. If charity is a voluntary way to achieve your preferred distributive consequences, then all sides should be equally pressed with the question: why don’t you just use charity instead?
So for instance, many on the right think that we should keep the current distribution in place. I think that we should change it to a much more egalitarian distribution. But here’s the thing: if we ever get to an egalitarian distribution, the right wing will always be free to try to achieve their desired distribution through charity. They can go door to door to try to get people to donate to charities that provide benefits to the richest among us. Their pitch will be simple: we think it is an injustice that you have this money and that really it ought to go to those who have the highest incomes. Then if those individuals agree that the rich aren’t rich enough due to our unjust egalitarian distribution, they can donate to charities that transfer money to rich people.
Why should I be forced to live in a distribution that provides so much money to the very richest in society when we can just implement an egalitarian distribution, and then right-wingers can run charities for the rich to try to voluntarily correct the “injustice” that the egalitarian distribution generates? Since they seem to be big fans of charity, why don’t we just kick it to them to try to achieve their distributive aims with it?