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Charity vs. Welfare


Lisa makes a good point I failed to make. It is a trope of liberal thinking to fudge the difference between charity and welfare (broadly understood). People who oppose welfare are called greedy and selfish, even though odds are they are more charitable, properly speaking, than the people who support welfare. An important distinction between the two is that charity has a certain stigma for those who receive it while welfare rapidly becomes a flat-out entitlement. The difference is enormous. Indeed, Gerson’s line of argument for Big Government overlooks the empirical side of the conservative case against Big Government. He attacks libertarians as ideologically opposed to Big Government, even when Big Government can help. But libertarians and a great many conservatives (contra Jonathan Chait) are not pure idealistic dogmatists when it comes to their arguments for limited government. We also argue that Big Government can be — and very often is — bad for poor people, arguing instead that the Burkean platoons of civil society are more effective at doing good. Gerson often seems intent on skipping this empirical objection in order to play into the narrative of conservatism as somehow anti-poor people.

I’m reminded of Nobel prize-winning economist Ronald Coase conjecture of why so many government programs seemed counter-productive or ineffective. He observed that:

“an important reason may be that government at the present time is so large that it has reached the stage of negative marginal productivity, which means that any additional function it takes on will probably result in more harm than good…. If a federal program were established to give financial assistance to Boy Scouts to enable them to help old ladies cross busy intersections, we could be sure that not all the money would go to Boy Scouts, that some of those they helped would be neither old nor ladies, that part of the program would be devoted to preventing old ladies from crossing busy intersections, and that many of them would be killed because they would now cross at places where, unsupervised, they were at least permitted to cross.”


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