Bryan Caplan  

Four Reactions to Charitable Requests, Plus One More to Charitable Demands

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Whenever someone appeals to my charity, four questions pop into my head:

1. Aren't you at least partly to blame for your problems?

2. Can't someone closer to you help?

3. Isn't there someone else in the world more deserving of my help?

4. Aren't you a complete stranger?

When someone actually demands charity via taxation, a fifth question occurs to me:

5. Even if you think you have answers for Questions 1-4, are they so convincing that you think it's OK to take my money without my consent?

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COMMENTS (24 to date)
JB writes:

Tom Nagel and Liam Murphy would say, "It's not really your money. Pre-tax income is just an accounting myth."

wesley writes:

Isn't 4 a source of 2 and 3?

(Also, somewhat unrelated but this post triggered it, do you think this kind of post does libertarianism some harm? No big deal, of course - you're not a politician - but if we care about promoting ideals, and not just sharing ours, maybe we should consider expressing these kinds of opinions in a more [tempered? considerate? diplomatic?] way? I don't know. But I worry about this sort of thing.)

I like Don Boudreaux's observation:

"I want to keep what I earn" is regarded as greedy and unenlightened.

"I want to take what you earn" is regarded as selfless and progressive.

RL writes:


Perhaps you overread Bryan's questions. You seem to assume answers that would lead to not assisting. Nothing BC wrote requires that assumption. For example:

1. Aren't you at least partly to blame for your problems?

No. I was walking properly in the crosswalk and got hit by the car, which then drove away. You saw the whole thing yourself!

2. Can't someone closer to you help?

You're standing right next to me!

3. Isn't there someone else in the world more deserving of my help?

Perhaps, but I'm bleeding out here, guy...

4. Aren't you a complete stranger?

I'm your brother, Bryan! What are you talking about!?!?

I'm sure in this context, BC WOULD provide charitable aid.

hacs writes:

When someone asks for charity, often the answers to those four questions are:

1). It is of secondary importance, help is needed.
2). No, otherwise charity would not be still needed.
3). If there exist and it is known then, it means that he/she will not be helped also.
4). It is very probable.
5). It is impossible to convince someone who, despite no longer he/she ignores the existence of the necessity and the needer (perhaps, more than that, as the name and situation), continues in doubt. Real charity does not violate the free will of anybody, it is an act of individual's conscience.

Methinks writes:


Why should we tiptoe? A single-payer proponent just told me that anyone who doesn't want socialized medicine lacks compassion and empathy. So, I naturally asked him how much he gave to the needy out of compassion and empathy. He told me in no uncertain terms that expecting him to reach into his own pocket is "childish". Okey dokey,then.

Larry Summers ended a piece to mark Milton Friedman's death, by saying that while he thought Friedman was a great economist and a great person, he was concerned that Milton Friedman wasn't concerned enough with the poor (read: not willing to pimp them for his own political purposes).

For socialists theft = empathy and compassion and charitable giving = stupid. Clearly, the the principle is not what matters to them. If Bryan labeled himself a Democrat, they will think what he said is true and wise, but since he labels himself a libertarian, nothing he says is true and everything he says lacks wisdom, compassion and empathy.

Everyone else - if they're honest - asks some version of Brian's questions when asked for charity.

Dennis Tuchler writes:

What's the alternative to charity? I suppose the true individualist egoist would say "let the person steal or starve; the former will get the beggar housed and fed, so if the beggar starves then that's a Darwinian plus." Of course, the individualist will also want to know whether giving charity is necessary to prevent society-rending rancor and whether that makes it a matter of peace-keeping, which is the government's job (conceding, therewith, the appropriateness of raising taxes for that purpose).

On the other side, socialists often decry charity as the last bastion of individualism and a rejection of the community as the proper source of beneficience.

wesley writes:

I think I was trying to make a point about form, not substance. E.g. he frames this as the things he thinks about "whenever someone appeals to my charity", but he probably means, "when deciding whether I should be charitable." It might be fair to say that compassion doesn't necessarily belong on the second list, but its absence on the first list is glaring, and probably either gives ammo to people who think they feel differently or at least strengthens their views about libertarian shortcomings. I see the same risk with asking "Aren't you..." or "Isn't there..." questions instead of "are you" or "is there" - they imply answers more readily than the alternative - or saying "complete stranger" instead of just "stranger", or "blame" instead of "responsible". But as I said, it's not a big deal. I'm nitpicking. (I do appreciate the thoughtful comments on what I wrote, though!)

And for what it's worth, I think the same things, but when sharing these thoughts with other people I do indeed try to "tiptoe", because I'm not just trying to share my thoughts -ultimately I'd like to persuade (or at least challenge, make others reconsider) and I think that's a lot easier with a more gentle form.

Steven McMullen writes:

Some consider generosity and charity to be virtues worth aspiring to. I am not sure, but I don't think these questions capture the spirit of these virtues.

El Presidente writes:

I would suggest a different set of questions:

1. Is that what you need?
2. Is it in my power to give it to you?
3. Will you give others what they need when you are able to do so?

With regard to 'charitable demands', I would add:

4. Why hasn't/wouldn't this need been met in other ways?

The appropriate responses would be:

1. Yes
2. Yes
3. Yes
4. Something compelling and insightful

swh writes:

Those that promote charity and compassion often have a limited view of what it is, are unwilling to accept any other, and insist on others accepting their view. Rarely is conversation with them productive or valuable.

MHodak writes:

I have always marveled at the progressive notion that compassion is better illustrated by what a government can coerce from its people rather than what a free people voluntarily give. When I ask them why coerced "charity" is better than voluntary charity, they invariably respond that voluntary charity would not be sufficient to take care of everyone's needs.

When I suggest that coercion negates charity, and that the government is simply a mechanism of mutual coercion, they get upset, or think I'm speaking a different language. So, if they are religiously inclined, and I suggest that one benefit of freedom of religion is that government enforced religion would actually undermine my relationship with God, they will totally get that. If they are part of the intellectual elite, and I suggest that government enforced truth in the media would undermine the credibility of all journalism, they will often get that. If I then suggest that government enforced charity takes away my ability to express charity, because what I give at the point of a gun doesn't count, and I'm deprived of some of the surplus I might use for charitable purposes, then we often get a little closer to speaking the same language.

MikeM writes:

Question 3 is the most pressing, because out of necessity if the answer is "yes" than the costs of my charitable transaction out weigh any kind of altruistic benefit.

MikeM writes:

After rereading my last post, the last line should be "societal benefit", as "altruistic benefit" gives the wrong meaning in this case.

Foobarista writes:

The notion of government as big charity is one of the nastiest arguments of the left. Like Mao said, political power comes from the barrel of the gun. He may have been a nasty dictator, but he was completely right about this observation.

Democratic governments are no different. We just get to pick the guy who points the gun.

So, is state boons that are paid for by compulsory taxation charity? Are you being charitable simply because you support these boons?

On another blog, a guy was arguing that he supports state health care because "he believes he is his brother's keeper". Not only is this a subtle ad-hominem attack on his opponents, it's also rooted in the idea that you can outsource your charity to the state by supporting taxes on other people.

Dick White writes:

For those with non-zero charitably contributions there is only one question, not four---do I wish for the psychic income attendant to this requested contribution? As Stephen Landsberg has demonstrated, why would non-zero contributors give to any but the single charity they believed most deserving except for the feel good effect (psychic income) of the incremental contribution.

Kurbla writes:
    JB wrote:

    Tom Nagel and Liam Murphy would say, "It's not really your money. Pre-tax income is just an accounting myth."

My formulation would be "It is your money just like your office in GMU is really your office."

Robert Speirs writes:

Millions of voters pay no net taxes. If they vote for payments to some citizens from the assets of others how are they being charitable? If they vote to give themselves money they are simply stealing by means of the state. If they vote to give others money they are no different from a thief who gives the money he steals to his friends.

El Presidente writes:


I have always marveled at the progressive notion that compassion is better illustrated by what a government can coerce from its people rather than what a free people voluntarily give.

Suppose your appetite for charitable giving is satiated and there are still unmet needs. At this point, what is more important: your satisfaction with yourself or the ability of others to obtain what they need? That is, do we value your self-actualization above their sustenance?

I wouldn't respect a 'progressive' who couldn't appreciate the notion that it is better to give of free will and in response to the needs of others than for fear of a penalty. Likewise, I don't know how I am supposed to respect anyone else who thinks that it's perfectly alright for people to go without necessities if nobody feels like giving.

I completely agree with you that the choice to give creates much more satisfaction (great utility, greater surplus) than an obligation to give. But all that means is that stopping short of voluntarily fulfilling the needs of others decreases our benefit and theirs. It means we are foolish for being selfish. It says nothing whatsoever about the alternative of taxing and redistributing, because this alternative only becomes plausible when there is need to be met, when we have already forgone the potential surplus, when we are 'leaving happiness on the table'.

There are problems of collective action and coordination that can inhibit the fulfillment of many humans' needs. Seeking to overcome these through democratic process is intelligent. Doing it well is difficult. Refusing to try is indefensible, if only on the basis of utility alone. Like I said, I don't know how I am supposed to respect people who take that position, but I'll try.

El Presidente writes:


Those that promote charity and compassion often have a limited view of what it is, are unwilling to accept any other, and insist on others accepting their view. Rarely is conversation with them productive or valuable.

Then stop talking to me. :-)

JH writes:

"3. Isn't there someone else in the world more deserving of my help?"

Of course there is. There will always be someone more deserving. So what? If A asks for charity and you determine B is more deserving, you then have to determine if C is more deserving than B. By the time you determine who is the most deserving (which is likely impossible), you will have helped nobody and a whole new set of charitable cases will now exist that require a completely new analysis. But, hey, thank God you didn't waste those $10 on A!

Mike Moffatt writes:

"OK to take my money without my consent?"

Two scenarios:

1. You work at a government funded institution and make, say, $200,000 a year which is taxed at 50% per annum, so you take home $100,000.

2. The Obama administration comes out with a law stating that government employees do not have to pay income taxes, but their incomes will be slashed in half. Now you're paid $100,000 a year by the government but do not pay a dime in income taxes.

Does #2 get around your objection? If so, what's the real difference between it and number 1? Either case your take home pay is the same.

Monte writes:

I'm sorry to intrude, but I couldn't resist...

Does #2 get around your objection?

This confidence game doesn't alter the fact that government maintains 100% control of your income. You might as well ask a condemned prisoner which form of execution he finds least objectionable. If there's no opportunity cost, there's no choice.

The Cupboard Is Bare writes:

I was under the impression that rather than have the government take money by force in the form of taxes to pay for entitlements, that libertarians would prefer to donate their time/money to charitable organizations or those in need.

"1. Aren't you at least partly to blame for your problems?"

When someone has a problem and they ask for my assistance, whenever appropriate, the first thing I do is to show them how to help themselves, as in "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime."

If it turns out that the person simply wants to be handed a fish and doesn't want to learn how to fish, I back away; because the person really doesn't want to help themselves.

"2. Can't someone closer to you help?"

There are times when family/friends are unable/unwilling to cope with a crises, which leaves the person in need without a support system.

"3. Isn't there someone else in the world more deserving of my help?

There will always be someone who is more deserving of help; but the time you spend trying to find the most deserving person might be better served helping several people.

"4. Aren't you a complete stranger?"

I have found that total strangers are frequently the most grateful for any assistance you can give them.

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