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One of [the sneaky little hobbitses’] most effective weapons in swaying public opinion is the claim that people are selfish, so that charity requires government coercion. Some version of the “need” for mandatory charity underlies arguments on both sides of the fiscal ledger, from the innumerable free or heavily subsidized expenditure programs that exist (and the long list of new ones always being proposed), to estate taxes and progressive income taxes.
However, because the selfishness claim has been around a long time, it has also been effectively debunked. Unfortunately, most people are almost completely unaware of those arguments, because it is “history” whose relevance they fail to see. As a result, they continue to fall prey to specious arguments in this area.
That is why it merits revisiting the largely unknown “other side” to the coercive charity argument. And few have done that better than F.A. Harper, who Lew Rockwell called “one of the most important figures in the anarcho-capitalist wing of libertarianism” roughly half a century ago. Harper was a Cornell University professor and member of the Mont Pelerin Society, who helped start up the Foundation for Economic Education, co-directed the William Volker Fund and founded the Institute for Humane Studies. Chapter 4 of his 1949 book, Liberty: A Path to Its Recovery, titled “Liberty and Charity”, decimates the charity argument against liberty.
Consider an abbreviated version:
But one accusation above all others seems to have wide appeal…the charge that liberty means selfishness and a lack of the spirit of charity.
Is liberty…in conflict with charity? Is it proper to accuse one who asserts his right to the product of his own labor, together with rights to private property, of being uncharitable and totally self-seeking?
The right to the product of one’s own labor, and the associated right to keep it and to do with is as one may choose, is not in conflict with compassion and charity. Leaving these matters to voluntary action, rather than to apply compulsion, is in harmony rather than in conflict with Christian ethics…assistance given voluntarily and anonymously from the product of one’s own labor…is truly charity; that taken from another by force, on the other hand, is not charity at all, in spite of its use for avowed “charitable purposes.” The virtue of compassion and charity cannot be sired by the vice of thievery.
“Political charity” violates the essentials of charity…It is not anonymous; on the contrary, there is boasting about the process by the politician both in the form of campaign promises yet unfilled as well as by reminders during the term of office…to insure that the receiver of these fruits of “charity” is kept mindful of an enduring obligation to the political agent. And the source of the giving is not from the pocket of the political giver himself, who has already violated the requirement of anonymity for purposes of personal gain; the wherewithal is taken by force from the pockets of others. And some of the amount collected is deducted for “costs of administering” by the one who claims personal virtue in the process. All told, the process of “political charity” is about as complete a violation of the requisites of charity as can be conceived.
Those who contend that the rights of liberty are in conflict with charity falsely assume that persons generally have a total disregard for the welfare of others…Evidence to the contrary is that the infant and the helpless members of the family, and other needy persons, do not ordinarily starve in a society where these rights prevail. The right to have income and private property means the right to control its disposition and use; it does not mean that the person himself must consume it all himself.
[There is also] the effect on compassion when welfare by force is attempted as a substitute for charity; when aid is no longer that of voluntary and anonymous donations from the product of one’s labor, for specific and known purposes.
Compassion is a purely personal thing. The body politic cannot have compassion. One cannot delegate compassion to a hired agent. Nor is compassion so cheap a virtue as to be practiced by the mere distributing of grants of aid taken from the pockets of others, rather than from one’s own pocket or from his own effort in production. A charity worker may be a kindly and lovable soul, but as far as compassion is concerned, he is only an employed person buying groceries and things for certain persons by using other people’s money…
When a taxpayer is forced to contribute to “charity” in spite of his judgment of need, he will increasingly shun the sense of responsibility which is requisite to a spirit of compassion; he will lose compassion as he more and more accepts the viewpoint: “That is the government’s business!”
Advocacy of these rights of liberty is sometimes called “selfishness.” “Self,” if used in this sense, means the entire circle of the person’s family, friends, relatives, organizations–anything which this person considers worthy of help from his income or savings.
If “selfishness” is to be charged against the one who demands the right to that which he has produced, selfishness of a far less virtuous order should also be charged against any non-producer who takes the income and wealth from another against his will.
If control of the disposition and use of income and wealth is to be called “selfishness,” then it is unavoidable that someone act selfishly in the handling of everything produced. The question then becomes: Who should have the right to be selfish, the one who produced it or some other person? Is it selfishness to control the disposition of that which you have produced, but unselfish to control the disposition of that which you have taken from those who produced it?
For this argument to be accepted, one would have to hold that non-producers are better qualified than producers to judge the wise use of what is produced. He would have to hold that non-producers are somehow more virtuous than producers; that they have superior wisdom and conscience. He would have to hold that the taking away from the producer by force will not discourage him from production, since it is not possible to be charitable with something not produced.
If the members of the human race be so self-centered that they are judged to be unqualified to handle the use of what they have labored to produce, the advocates of “charity” by force…must face an interesting question. How will it be possible to administer the program? Who can be found to operate a program of “wise charity,” if that be true? If one could be found, by what respectable means could he be expected to gain his throne of power over all those supposedly self-centered dregs of humanity?…And finally, they should review carefully their starting assumption that justice and charity and selflessness can best be attained through giving legal or moral sanction to the taking by one person of the product of another’s labor by force. Whence comes the alleged superiority in the morals and wisdom of the taker–is it the result of his having engaged in the taking, or in gaining power over others, or from where? More reasonable is the assumption that proficiency in these respects is found in a person lacking in morals and wisdom.
Liberty is not in conflict with charity. More accurately, charity is possible and can reach large proportions only under liberty; and under liberty, for it would probably be greatly reduced.
Floyd Harper long ago answered the argument that charity requires government coercion. As he put it, moral considerations have no place except where liberty exists. He demonstrated that while government coercion does create more “need, it undermines true charity (to the point where current alleged failures to be charitable enough are more likely the result of expanding government intervention than any “market failure”. Further, he saw that the coercion “justified” because it is deemed charitable (by someone other than the one whose resources are used) threatened liberty more broadly:
“Liberty will be allowed in society only insofar as there is acceptance of the conduct of others…Tolerance in disagreement demands acceptance of separate domains within which a person is allowed to make his mistakes, if he does so with what is his rather than with what is yours. Private property within the economic arena of scarce and desired things operates to this end. Once these domains are accepted, then it becomes a prime moral right of a person ‘to do what I will with mine own’ instead of to do what I will with your own.”