Republicans and Charity

Some conservative writer–I think it was John Nolte–once said that A Christmas Carol was a conservative story.  Scrooge, he reasoned, learns the value of private charity.  I cannot find the quote, but as I recall he made reference to Scrooge’s line about sending the poor to prisons and workhouses as demonstrating that he is in the beginning a “liberal” who puts his faith in government.  By the end, after the ghosts stop by, he decides that aid to the poor must be done privately (but lavishly!) and so becomes a conservative.

I don’t think Dickens was even thinking in those terms when he wrote the story, so I don’t really buy this interpretation.  The story is more about generosity vs. stinginess in general.  Scrooge is designed to be unlikeable to everyone, liberal or conservative.  The only people I can see liking pre-ghost Scrooge would be Ayn Rand types who oppose all charity.

Nevertheless, it is rather interesting to consider the dichotomy that this conservative interpretation of that classic tale implicitly draws.  Though there are Randian exceptions, the majority of conservatives are not opposed to charity in general, they are only opposed to charity when it is done by the government.

Charity Venn Diagram
In truth, the left circle should be much smaller.


It cannot be because they are concerned people will become dependent upon charity; for that is equally likely whether it is the State, or the Church, or private individuals providing the charity.  Conservatives never worry that people will become dependent on the Church or wealthy individuals.  Only on the State.

Thus, we may reasonably conclude that, with a few exceptions, Republican opposition to welfare programs is because they are of the State, and not because they are welfare programs.

So, again, why?

Consider this excerpt from Albert Jay Nock’s 1936 book Our Enemy, the State, a sort of protest he wrote against the expansion of government under Roosevelt:

If the State has made such matters its business, and has confiscated the social power necessary to deal with them, why, let it deal with them. We can get some kind of rough measure of this general atrophy by our own disposition when approached by a beggar. Two years ago we might have been moved to give him something: today we are moved to refer him to the State’s relief-agency. The State has said to society, ‘You are either not exercising enough power to meet the emergency, or are exercising it in what I think is an incompetent way, so I shall confiscate your power, and exercise it to suit myself.’ Hence when a beggar asks us for a quarter, our instinct is to say that the State has already confiscated our quarter for his benefit, and he should go to the State about it.

Notice that this, by and large, is not true.  It may be logical enough in its way, but it is not how most human beings actually behave.  (Maybe Nock was a Vulcan—the name fits.)  Most people will make that sort of decision based on more immediate factors, and do not stop to think about whether government has already “confiscated” the funds.  Nock evidently did, but he should have figured out that he was an exception.

I think the answer boils down to the nationalist/business divide in the Republican party. If you read this blog regularly, you know that my answer is, as I once put it: “Business wants to keep the government from getting its money; nationalists hate the actual people in the government.”

Well maybe “hate” is a strong word. Still, I think the major issue is their dislike of the government, and the resultant concern that people will become dependent upon it, rather than dependent on, say, religious institutions. Their quarrel is not with dependency per se, but only with what institution the beneficiaries of charity are in danger of becoming dependent upon.

But perhaps even that does not altogether account for it. As has been stated many times, the Republicans do not mind wasteful government spending on certain things that they like, particularly the military.  It is only when the spending is devoted to someone or something they don’t like.  They don’t oppose the whole government, only certain parts of it.


  1. You make a very astute observation about conservatives only liking (and wanting to invest in) certain functions of government (like the military). The same, of course, could be said of liberals. They want to invest in a form of universal health care (that includes funding abortion) and withhold money from organizations (particularly religious ones like Catholic Charities) who promote different values and spend money in different ways. Ultimately, any organization (be it governmental, religious, or otherwise) will spend money in ways that reflect their values. Thanks for the thoughtful post.

    1. A very good point. Both sides attempt to justify their actions in terms of a philosophy of government, but it seems to me that these often turn out to be incoherent or contradictory when closely examined.

      That doesn’t mean that both sides don’t have firm philosophies underlying their policies, but as I see it, they are *moral* philosophies rather than philosophies of how government ought to work. Government is, in the end, just a means of accomplishing what one thinks ought to be done.

  2. If the unnamed conservative had written a book report on A Christmas Carol with that interpretation, I expect it would have received a poor grade. It’s wholly and utterly focused on spiritual generosity, expressed both by individuals AND government.

    This nonsense about “big vs small” government is also a canard, when the real issue is “better vs worse” in decision making. Some kinds of problems take more people and resources to solve, some take less. You can’t just say “less is always better”, nor the reverse.
    I’ll stand with Dickens any day. Be generous, whether you have little or a lot.

  3. An interesting phenomenon I’ve also observed is some prominent conservatives who will organize large charity actions for the less fortunate because they want to prove that “the government doesn’t have to do this”. I would question if some of those charity events would have happened if it wasn’t for a certain pressure from a growing government. This is why I like a mix of capitalism and socialism in a society–the different forces working off each other can be beneficial to everyone.

    1. That is very interesting. I actually can believe that private charity may sometimes be more efficient, and thus better at helping people, than government aid. And it’s true that if more people took it upon themselves to be more charitable, the government wouldn’t have to do as much. Thanks for mentioning this.

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