Thursday, May 21, 2015

Some Comments on Charity (and Justice)

There is massive confusion these days about the difference between justice and charity . . . to say nothing of the bewildered babblings about virtue itself, rights, duties, natural law and supernatural law, individual and social virtue . . . the list seems to be endless. 

Defunct Economist John Maynard Keynes (the Long Run portrait)
Even trying to find a common language to discuss the situation seems an insurmountable task — for which we, in part, blame John Maynard Keynes (why not?) and the widespread acceptance of a concept he embodied as a fundamental premise of Keynesian economics: that the State (or whoever has power) has the ability to “re-edit the dictionary” to conform the meaning of words to whatever those in power find most convenient at the moment.

We kid you not.  He actually said that . . . right before he claimed that complete State control of everything through control of money and credit is the inevitable end of civilization, as demonstrated for the past 4,000 years.  It’s in the first couple of pages of Volume I of his Treatise on Money (1930), if you’re curious.  He also made the brilliant observation that, in the long run, we're all dead.

George Orwell did a number on the modern tendency to try and control language à la Goebbels in 1984, describing how State manipulation of language is one of the most powerful weapons to prevent people from thinking and keep them in line and utterly dependent on government.  After all, if you don’t know what words mean from one moment to the next, how can you discuss anything intelligently?  Or, if the “standard” of the currency changes from moment to moment, how do you know what anything is worth, or even transact business in any meaningful way?

Obviously you can’t — which is why anyone who wants to exercise power over others insists on changing definitions of terms at will.  Can you, for example, define “marriage” today in a way that everyone accepts that definition?

Yet this is what has been happening to the terms “charity” and “justice” for a number of centuries.  By mixing ’n matching different concepts, assumptions, and anything else they find expedient, words stop meaning anything other than what you can force others to accept . . . until you change your mind.

"Christian charity—a duty not enforced by human law."
Remarkably, however, we find a very clear distinction made between justice and charity in Rerum Novarum, the source probably cited more than any other to justify today’s confusion between justice and charity!  (This raises the suspicion that some people might only be seeing what they want to see when reading, and hearing only what they want to hear, but that’s an issue for another day.)  As Leo XIII put it,

“[I]f the question be asked: How must one's possessions be used? — the Church replies without hesitation in the words of the same holy Doctor: ‘Man should not consider his material possessions as his own, but as common to all, so as to share them without hesitation when others are in need. Whence the Apostle with, “Command the rich of this world . . . to offer with no stint, to apportion largely.”’  True, no one is commanded to distribute to others that which is required for his own needs and those of his household; nor even to give away what is reasonably required to keep up becomingly his condition in life, ‘for no one ought to live other than becomingly.’ But, when what necessity demands has been supplied, and one's standing fairly taken thought for, it becomes a duty to give to the indigent out of what remains over. ‘Of that which remaineth, give alms.’ It is a duty, not of justice (save in extreme cases), but of Christian charity — a duty not enforced by human law.” (Rerum Novarum, § 22.)

Believe it or not, this is pretty clear.  When the issue is distribution on the basis of need, Leo XIII carefully distinguished what is due in justice, from what is due in charity.  The former can be enforced by the State, while the latter is (and must be) purely voluntary.

When can distribution on the basis of need by the coercive power of the State be justified?  When “extreme cases” endanger the common good.  Otherwise, it must be left to charity.

Msgr. Knox, friend of Sheen and Chesterton.
What appears to infuriate so many people, however, is that you cannot force people to do what is right and be charitable. . . especially as they define “right” and “charitable.”  Consequently, as Msgr. Ronald Knox pointed out in Enthusiasm (1950), those deemed ungodly, or unworthy, or whatever have no rights, and you can do with them as you will, using the power of the State to punish those you have decided are sinful.  Not surprisingly, Knox defined “enthusiasm” as “an excess of charity that threatens unity,” an orientation based on “faith” (i.e., personal opinion) instead of reason.

Does this mean, as some “conservatives” insist, that welfare (when it is given at all) must be made conditional not on need, but on the recipients’ worthiness, hence drug testing and background checks?  Or, as some “liberals” demand, that the State confiscate what belongs to the wealthy to provide for everyone’s every needs because modern conditions make it impossible for people to take care of themselves?

Well . . . neither, actually.  The “conservative” demand to make drug testing a condition for receiving welfare is as wrong-headed as the “liberal” demand that the rich be stripped of their wealth because they are rich and the State be responsible for universal wellbeing.

A Possible Solution
. . . which is not to say that someone should not be required to prove that he or she is using welfare for the intended purpose(s) and not subsidizing a drug or alcohol addiction, or that, in “extreme cases,” the rich should not pay a greater proportion of their wealth over a reasonable and meaningful exemption than other taxpayers until the emergency is over.  In both cases, however, there should be “reasonable cause” to demand a drug test or levy higher taxes.

What few people seem to realize, however, is that charity or coerced redistribution (just or unjust) is not, and can never be a solution to the growing wealth, income, and power gap throughout the world.  At best, all such measures can do is buy time until a real solution is designed and implemented.

The only real solution is to remove unjust barriers to full participation in the common good, especially that part of it that relates to economic activity, so that everyone can become productive through ownership of both labor and capital, and thereby take care of their own needs through their own efforts.  Most immediately, this would involve tax and monetary reforms to encourage productive activity and make it possible for every child, woman, and man to own and control capital, and enjoy the fruits thereof (i.e., get the income).

The Just Third Way as applied in Capital Homesteading is one possibility, and one reason why we’d like to see Pope Francis issue an encyclical on the three principles of economic justice on which the Just Third Way is based.


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