Arnold Kling  

We all have flaws

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AP econ quiz... Arnold on Health Insurance...

James Kwak muses,


I like to think that maybe there are people on the House Financial Services Committee who are secretly not so sure about the difference between preferred and common stock, and maybe they will read Financial Services for Beginners, and maybe that will help them understand what's at stake so they can make an informed decision rather than just voting the way the lobbyists want them to vote.

Modern liberals believe that human flaws should be corrected by government. Every once in a while, they stop to consider the fact that human flaws are also embedded in government. This brings them dangerously close to thinking like libertarians, so, like Kwak, they dance around this issue and then walk away from it. Instead, they tell themselves that there just has to be a way to construct flawless government out of flawed human beings. There just has to.

One of the most amazing things to me is that if I were to suggest that we rely on charity rather than government to solve problems, modern liberals would consider me mad. How can we rely on charity? Surely, government is more reliable.

But I think charities are not so unreliable. At least when I donate to an organization that pays for heart surgery for impoverished children, they do some of that. When I donate to support a charter school that takes inner-city youth and puts them in a boarding school to prepare them for college, it turns out that the school does this.

Government, too, promises to do good things with my money. But then I see what they actually do with it, and I think that this is the worst false-advertising scam ever.

Imagine that all of us could send our tax dollars to the charities of our choice. Then in order to get bailout money, AIG would have to hold a bake sale. Would you buy a cookie from AIG to help them out? Think about how many cookies you are buying to help AIG the next time a liberal tells you that it's crazy to think that we could rely on charity rather than government to help people in need.


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CATEGORIES: Political Economy



COMMENTS (11 to date)
Mike Gibson writes:

What about vouchers for charity? To make an analogy with school choice arguments, split the production of a good from its subsidy. The government could provide each citizen with a voucher that must be spent on the charity of their choice.

Would this introduce an element of competition into philanthropy?

If it works in the case of education, why not charity? What differs?

beamish writes:

A monetary system is a great thing, and it's very hard to see how it might be set up as a charitable organization. Governments, as a matter of fact, can set up monetary systems. Surely something that can do something is more reliable than something that can't. It's fine to say that the government shouldn't have bailed out AIG, but it's silly to say that the regulation and maintenance of our fiat money system should be left to charity.

liberty writes:

beamish: or it can be left to the banks... Something need not be provided as non-profit if it is profitable!

(There is a large literature on free banking)

Jim writes:

An easy way to do this would be a dollar-for-dollar, 100% refundable tax credit for charitable donations. Make HHS compete with the Salvation Army for taxpayer dollars and see who wins.

El Presidente writes:

Arnold,

Modern liberals believe that human flaws should be corrected by government. . .[T]hey tell themselves that there just has to be a way to construct flawless government out of flawed human beings. There just has to.

I think I know a few modern liberals, and I think you discount their realism. It is not that they believe they will construct flawless government from flawed persons. It is instead that they feel the pursuit of something better can improve upon the status quo, whether or not their ideal is ever attained. I would think a libertarian could relate to that, but my experience with them tells me that they wouldn't even if they could. Modern liberals may very well be pursuing a different outcome, one you may not want, or by means you do not approve of. However, it would seem that writing them off as silly dreamers who don't understand how the world really works is mistaken and bordering on self-righteous. There are those types out there, but they don't accurately represent 'modern liberals', if we are speaking of the same people.

If a libertarian were to actively and directly oppose the philosophical position of the modern liberal, I would think they'd have to do so by defending the sanctity of injustice or saying that whatever outcome is generated by a laissez faire system is inherently just and needs no correction. I don't see a lot of volunteers for that, especially right now, even though their retreat to safe harbor is usually insisting that laissez faire doesn't actually exist, won't ever exist, and therefore can't be fairly criticized. Instead, the argument goes: "Yeah, bad things happen and people do bad stuff to each other, but if we do anything about it we'll just make it worse." It is only the moderate libertarian who can get away with the criticism you level. They don't believe in their own philosophy deeply enough to insist that externalities ought to be addressed and mitigated to their fullest extent; that harms to persons and property are forbidden and fully compensated as a first principle whether they are caused by government or by private interests. So, they support property rights, sorta; at least until it becomes a hassle, or unless it's somebody else's property, or if the intervention of a third party is necessary to compel the others. Then it's just survival of the fiercest. That is a lazy libertarianism. Where is the libertarianism that advocates a right _to_ property, not just the rights of those who already have some in proportion to the amount they have? Charity is wonderful. I wouldn't want to rob anybody of the joy of giving, but I'd sooner do that than see people go without things they need.

Charlie writes:

"Modern liberals believe that human flaws should be corrected by government."

What are some liberal policies? Minimum wage, trade barriers, progressive taxes, education spending, rights/protections for the disabled/minorities.

All these policies seem to be liberals correcting market outcomes not "human flaws." It seems a more relevant distinction between liberals and libertarians is a weighting of the value of property rights compared with certain market outcomes. In freedoms that aren't related as directly to market outcomes speech, drugs, marriage, privacy, liberals and libertarians find more agreement.

Mark T writes:

One of the best posts I have read in a long time. Excellent!

The Cupboard Is Bare writes:

"But I think charities are not so unreliable. At least when I donate to an organization that pays for heart surgery for impoverished children, they do some of that.

You are right about that, but it's always best to check out the prospectus of any charity to see what percentage of their charitable donations go towards administrative costs and to see what ties, if any, they may have with the government. I have a friend who works for a not-for-profit shelter that finds housing for the homeless. All their clients are referred to them by DSS. I know that the not-for-profit has donors and fund raisers...I don't know off hand what money, if any, comes from the state.

Dan Weber writes:
that there just has to be a way to construct flawless government out of flawed human beings.
That sounds like building AAA bonds out of subprime mortgages!

Seriously, though, sometimes it's possible for the sum to have less risks than its parts. Consider a 100% stock portfolio and a 100% bond portfolio. They each have risks, but if you combine them together, the total risks go down.

but it's always best to check out the prospectus of any charity to see what percentage of their charitable donations go towards administrative costs
I'd recommend going further, and actively volunteer for the organization. When you find one that seems to function well, give it a lot of money.

Charities lie on their prospectuses as much as corporations do, and then defend themselves by saying "all the other groups do this!", just like corporations do. Most roll their "fundraising" line-item underneath "education."

beamish writes:

beamish: or it can be left to the banks... Something need not be provided as non-profit if it is profitable!

Well, fine. In many respects, it is left to the banks. I'm just saying it can't be left to charity.

Matthew C. writes:

Actually the "help AIG" meme is just misdirection.

In fact, AIG is now being run solely as a money-laundering scheme to take extorted taxpayer dollars and give them to the politically-indispensible owners and bondholders of Wall Street banks like Citi, BoA, Goldman Sachs and the like. . .

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