Almost all charity arguments are analytically confused

I’ve written on charity stuff before. When it comes to economic issues, I prefer justice to charity. I prefer that we arrange our distributive institutions to achieve a fair distribution, not allow unfair distributions to happen that we then maybe ameliorate through private transfers. I think Oscar Wilde’s argument on this front is the most elegant. Here I want to explain as clearly as I can why I think almost all arguments for using charity are analytically confused.

The distribution of income is necessarily prior to charity because you cannot be charitable until after things have been distributed out. When I say necessarily prior, I mean that in a temporal sense. Things happen like this:

  1. First, income is distributed according to the rules we have established to govern distribution (i.e. according to our distributive institutions).
  2. Then, charity occurs insofar as individuals voluntarily transfer the income they receive in step 1 to someone else.

Step 1 is the step where poor people are created. But poor people will only be created at step 1 if you have opted for distributive institutions that generate such an outcome. If you opt for different distributive institutions that do not have that outcome, there will be few if any poor people.

People are people. They become rich and poor people based upon the decisions you make at step 1. So when people say they’d rather “help” poor people with charity instead of the government, this is totally confused. It imagines that poor people are a given. What they are actually saying there, if anything, is that they want to 1) create poor people by opting for distributive institutions that bring them into existence, and then 2) use private transfers to make the poor people created in step 1 less poor.

It is wrong to say there is a dispute between how to help the poor (charity or government). If you design your distributive institutions differently (i.e. use the government route), the people in question are not poor in the first place. The only thing that would ever allow us to tag someone as poor in the first place is opting for distributive institutions that cause some people to have very little. If you opt for other distributive institutions, you aren’t “helping” the poor. The poor literally just don’t exist. They never exist in this world.

But it’s easy to see where the confusion is. Folks who talk about this assume that the distribution we have now is a default, neutral baseline. And then they imagine that the people who are made poor by it as being just freestanding poor people. So because the status quo causes people to be poor, we imagine changing the distributive institutions as undertaking a project of helping those people. But those people are only identifiable as poor because we have institutions that are making them that way right now. Otherwise they’d just be people, blended in with all the rest.

Analytically, it should not matter what your starting point is. But in human psychology about this stuff, it matters a ton. For instance, suppose we are in Finland, which has — if I recall correctly — something like a 2 percent childhood poverty rate. Does Finland help the poor? How do you know? The only poor people I see are those 2 percent. The way Finland distributes income to the families of the other 98 percent cannot be said to help poor kids because those other kids aren’t poor kids. They are just kids.

Now imagine the Finnish starting point and consider the charity argument in that context. The charity argument would say this: let’s take kids who are not poor right now and distribute their families way less money each year. Then, since they have way less money going to them, let’s privately transfer money to them. This would literally be the charity proposal from the Finnish starting point. Step 1: bring a bunch of poor kids into existence. Step 2: privately transfer them money.

But since we think about this problem from a US starting point, we imagine the poor people that we are creating as just kind of there. And so the charity argument becomes somehow viable because we can’t see that the poorness of these people is a result of present distributive decisions, not a given. It is the result of us choosing distributive institutions X instead of Y.

The point here is that when we are debating about whether to adopt distributive institutions X or distributive institutions Y, charity is totally irrelevant. There is no such thing as “I’d rather help the poor with charity” in the context of that debate. That debate is deciding who, if anyone, will actually be poor. That debate is deciding whether there will be poor people. That debate cannot be about how to help poor people because — as an analytical matter — there literally are no poor people yet. The poor people come into existence after that debate has concluded, and the distributive institutions do their thing. So the debate about distributive institutions cannot properly be about how to help poor people, but about how many poor people we want to bring into existence (which is what then makes helping “poor people” a possible thing to even do).