Sunday, April 19, 2015

Herbert Spencer's view of charity

"Charity Is in Its Nature Essentially Civilizing": In Defense of Herbert Spencer | Cato @ Liberty - Trevor Burrus:

April 17, 2015 - "Spencer writes with the peculiar verve of a 19th-century British intellectual, coming from the same milieu as anthropologists who would blithely discuss the 'savage and uncivilized mongoloid and negroid races.' Similarly, Spencer would insouciantly attack the lazy, shiftless, and incompetent.

"Post-modern relativism makes us balk at these absolute terms. In modern politics we tend to think more about the conditions into which people are born rather than their personal responsibility. Discussions of the 'deserving poor' and 'undeserving poor' are now largely uncouth.

"But to Spencer, as to most 19th-century political and social theorists, the distinction mattered. Like many modern libertarians and conservatives, Spencer was very concerned that profligate and indiscriminate assistance for the poor would incentivize bad behavior. Although many on the left loathe the idea that welfare can create bad behavior, most people understand that concern. To anyone who’s ever had to cut off ne’er-do-well friends or family from further charity in order to help them out, those concerns make sense.

"Viewing society as something like an organism, Spencer thought broadly about how laws and policies could either encourage or discourage certain behaviors. As a Lamarckian – someone who believes acquired traits are heritable – he was concerned that those bad behaviors would be transmitted down through the generations. His end goal was an affluent society based on voluntary interaction in which sympathy for fellow men thrived. If the government did too much to encourage certain types of harmful behavior, then Spencer feared that, in the long run, the pain and suffering would be greater.

"What types of harmful behavior? Spencer was surely against the cronyistic businessman who prefers to use government to extract from taxpayers rather than building an honest business that adds to the sum total of wealth in society. In a system that cultivated such people, the doctrine of 'survival of the fittest' would mean that 'the fittest' were cronies rather than honest businessmen. Under his view of social evolution, the cumulative effect of such crony-supporting policies would be a society in which innovative entrepreneurs are replaced by cronies who lack creativity and pluck and do business with an army of lobbyists. Laws that perpetuate such cronyism would be 'acts of parliament to save silly people,' to use a Spencer quote cited by Millhiser.

"Similarly, Spencer would also oppose the person who resides on the dole without working, the kind of person the British press, in particular, loves to highlight. Spencer believed, not irrationally, that facilitating such behavior will only breed more of it. Most importantly, in the long run there will be great suffering in societies that massively facilitate such behavior, whether it is cronyism or welfare dependency.

"Does this mean that Spencer wrote seemingly hard-hearted things like 'widows and orphans should be left to struggle for life and death?' Yes. To Spencer, the laws that categorically try to prevent such suffering would only result in long-term suffering. For those who refuse to help themselves, and for those who persist in patterns of bad, self-destructive behavior, it is true that he thought many should be allowed to die. Again, however, this belief is not as radical as it sounds. Both law and charity can only do so much, and human beneficence can only be stretched so far for those who are unwilling to change their behavior. Ask a social worker how much patience he has for the clients who don’t even seem to be trying, whether they are heroin users or morbidly obese diabetic smokers. 'I can only do so much,' the social worker would probably say. But for those willing to change their behavior, or at least to try, Spencer had great sympathy.

"He also believed that laws that try to solve suffering merely reorganize the goods of society without solving the underlying problem, namely, the conditions that produce and exacerbate poverty. As he wrote, 'If it gives enough to some who else would not have enough, it must inevitably reduce certain others to the condition of not having enough. And thus, to the extent that a poor-law mitigates distress in one place, it unavoidably produces distress in another.'"

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