This article was published in the Winter 1993-94 issue of Formulations
by the Free Nation Foundation
Circles of Support:  A Libertarian View of Charity
by Richard Hammer

   (to table of contents of FNF archives)   (to start of essay)
Why Formulate a Libertarian View of Charity?
The Formula:  Three Conditions
Examples to Illustrate Use of the Three Conditions
But This Formula is Hard-Hearted, Is It Not?
Inherent Uncertainty, the Central Problem in Giving
The Role of Charities, Organizations for Voluntary Giving
The Impact of Government-Run Redistribution
Sociology: The Search for a Moral Application

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Why Formulate a Libertarian View of Charity?

Guess what happened to me, outspoken libertarian that I am, in June 1992. I got appointed to the Orange County (North Carolina) Board of Social Services. This was a strange twist of fate and one with a sense of humor.

While I was being considered for the appointment I told a friend, the fellow Republican whose contacts got me appointed, that I did not know of anything done by the Department of Social Services that I thought government should do. Now, after participating on the board and voting "nay" for a year and a half, the same is still true. None of what this department does which includes local implementation of Medicaid, aid to families with dependent children (AFDC), food stamps, child protective services, and a score more of programs is anything that I think government has any business doing.

Nonetheless I must recommend the experience of "serving" on such a board to other libertarians who might have such an opportunity. It is a great test of one's ability to remain calm while sitting in the front lines of socialism's advance on self-responsibility.

And it has made me think. On a few occasions, after I have voted "nay" on a motion that the other board members thought was obviously better than motherhood and apple pie combined, a few of these members have been interested and open-minded enough to ask why I voted that way. My answers to these questions have been good enough, I think, to keep them from trying to remove me for reasons of insanity. But I have not been fully satisfied.

The other members have not asked the toughest questions; they have not known the areas where I have felt my theory was incomplete. Now I know that my soul is not entirely covered with calluses, because there are times when I give, mostly to relatives or to close friends. And I know that I stand willing to help strangers in certain situations, even to risk my life. But between the extremes, where clearly I would give or clearly I would not give, there were instances of doubt. In case the other members ever questioned me in this range of doubt I wanted to be able to answer.

Also, I find another motivation to sketch a libertarian view of charity in the work plan of the Free Nation Foundation. We work to approach our goal, the replacement of institutions of government with institutions of voluntary interaction, by developing clear and believable descriptions of those voluntary institutions. And while charity is not a burning issue among us, still I believe it worthwhile for us to develop descriptions of how we believe voluntary charity could work.

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The Formula: Three Conditions

What I have formulated here is my own personal view of charity. I have always had an instinct about giving: sometimes it is right, other times it is wrong. But I have never until now tried to describe that instinct. Since this is the result of introspection, and not of research, I cannot claim that it speaks for anyone else. But I hope that others might find it familiar and plausible. And I believe that many should be able to use the framework I suggest here by simply plugging in their own values.

I have surmised that my instinct about charity requires three conditions. I call these: circumstance, motivation, and relationship. I give to an applicant who passes each of these three.



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Examples to Illustrate Use of the Three Conditions

To clarify what I mean by these conditions, I will now give a few examples telling how I would respond to a few imaginary applications.

Example 1: While I am walking on a street in a city, a disheveled stranger who smells of alcohol approaches me and asks for a dollar for a hamburger.

This applicant fails on all three conditions. First, I do not empathize with this person's circumstance. If I were hungry and on the street I would look for work, or perhaps offer to exchange work for food. Second, I do not trust the motivation of the applicant. I lack confidence that my dollar will help buy food, rather than wine. And even if my dollar did help give this person food energy to carry on for another day, he may spend that energy on panhandling, rather than on looking for work or getting a shave and a bath.

And third, perhaps the worst part of this application is the relationship between the applicant and myself. If somehow I found myself in this person's condition I would not approach a stranger for aid until I had gone through all the closer circles of support. And while I do not know this person, and whether he has or could have all the circles of support such as those that I feel I have, I have reason to believe he has not exhausted all the closer circles because I know there are soup kitchens, and private charities and government "charities," which I would approach before approaching a stranger.

Example 2: Hearing calls for help I see a person drowning in a lake. Even though there is some risk to me, it looks to me as though I probably can get the person out if I dive in. No other means of rescue are on hand.

This application passes all three conditions. In that circumstance I would seek help. Obviously the person is motivated to live, and I empathize. In relationship to me this person is a stranger, but obviously no closer circles of support are on hand. Every time I jump.

Example 3: In the mail I receive a solicitation from an official-sounding organization, but I have never heard of it before. They are asking for money to help feed starving people in Somalia.

This application is more complicated because it comes through an intermediary. As far as I know, starving Somalis would pass my first two conditions, and possibly my third condition. But I know nothing about this intermediary. It could be a complete fraud. If I were in an organization approaching strangers on behalf of starving people, I would try hard to establish my credibility in the eyes of those whom I approached; for starters I would tell where I got their names and addresses, by whom they were referred. It fails.

Example 4: A neighbor whom I trust, who served in the Peace Corps in Somalia, has received a communication from a family in Somalia that she knew and trusted. They are starving. But a $500 dollar bribe would get them across a border where they could find sustenance. My neighbor has no immediate family, no one closer than me who might help in this circumstance, and since she is living on the fare of a graduate student she has only a few dollars herself. No private charity that I know of helps with this sort of thing. No government helps with this sort of thing.

I empathize with both the family and the intermediary. This evidently is not a ploy; if this family is to get to food and safety, it is up to me. I get my checkbook.

Example 5: A member of my extended family asks for money to help finance a trip to a third-world country so that he can help the people in that country start using computers to manage their agriculture.

This application passes on relationship, but fails on the other two conditions. I know the applicant a little bit, and I know a little about computers and managing processes, and I think it unlikely that this person, attempting the plan described, can achieve something that I would believe worthwhile.

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But This Formula Is Hard-Hearted, Is It Not?

I expect that some readers may think this sounds hard-hearted, relying on these three rigid conditions. Here I will offer a few defenses.

Consider the opposite. Suppose these conditions did not apply. What would that mean? If the condition of circumstance did not apply, I might wind up giving aid to people better off than myself, or to an applicant who drives a luxury automobile and is trying to raise $50 to buy textbooks. If the condition of motivation did not apply, I might be giving money which gets spent on harmful drugs or lottery tickets. If the condition of relationship did not apply, I would be unable to screen applicants based upon what I knew about them as persons, and unable to monitor, after the fact, how my aid was applied.

Another objection to this formula might be presented as the question, "Do you mean you would let someone starve?" I have an answer in two parts. First, I stand willing to help anyone who, in my judgment, is doing all that they can for themselves; no one would starve unless, in my judgment, it was a consequence of their own folly.

Second, since my paper tiger (the person asking the question) must evidently have lofty intentions, I would give the plea back to that person for his or her more compassionate consideration: I would admit that my system would let some fall through the cracks (those capable of helping themselves), and ask, "Do you mean that you, if you lived in a free society and thus could spend only your own money, would let these people starve?"

Under the formula I have outlined, most giving would take place between people who knew each other, within families or between friends. And while ongoing support would be provided for people who were permanenetly disabled, most supports would cover only emergencies and short-term needs. This system assumes that recipients are working toward self-sufficiency, and that they will succeed within a reasonable timeframe. If self-sufficiency does not develop within reasonable time, then the donor could be expected to reexamine the giving, to see if it still satisfies the second condition, motivation.

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Inherent Uncertainty, the Central Problem in Giving

Sometimes, when we give, it seems clear that we are helping the recipient. But at other times it is not clear. A model I think of is that of a parent bird which nurtures its young fledgling in the nest up to a certain point, but eventually pushes it out of the nest. In that moment the fledgling must find its wings or plummet to the ground. I expect the parent bird is almost always right: the fledgling discovers that it can fly, and is better off for having been denied another day in the nest. But I expect there are times when the parent errs, when another day might have afforded the fledgling maturity to fly.

It seems likely to me that any design of a system for giving will face this sort of uncertainty. There will always be some applications which test the boundary. And this uncertainty is made worse by the fact that the applicants have intelligence. If we were sorting stones we might come up with a definition which we could publish and maintain for a long time. But we are sorting people who probably experience an incentive to be classified one way or the other. When they learn the rules, likely they will see what they can do to fit into a category they prefer.

I make this point to counter the objection that some deserving applicants will fall through the cracks. Every design, including government-run systems, will unavoidably let some deserving applicants fall through the cracks. There is no foolproof way for humans to judge the motives and abilities of other humans.

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The Role of Charities, Organizations for Voluntary Giving

I must recognize a limitation in the system I have described so far. There might be people whose need would satisfy all three of my conditions, but about whom I would never learn, because of their distance from me. This, as I see it, shows a need for organizations serving as intermediaries.

In a free society I expect numerous organizations would form, each serving a particular niche, to match the needs of recipients with the values of donors. I would give to an organization which screened applicants on the basis of my three conditions. But I would not want the existence of a charitable organization to weaken the basic social structure of circles of support. I would still expect applicants to try first to obtain support from their closer circles, and I would give only to an organization which did screen on this basis.

In this whole picture of charity, if I have a lingering doubt about whether I have succeeded in describing a system which would satisfy my sense of moral obligation, it relates to the question: How much of an obligation do I have to try to find strangers who would satisfy my three conditions? As I live I do not learn of them or invest much energy in trying to find them. And I do not feel guilty about this. But I am open to the argument that a more saintly person than I might try harder to connect with them.

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The Impact of Government-Run Redistribution

You may have noticed, when I listed circles of support, that I did not include systems of government-run redistribution, such as those overseen by the Orange County Board of Social Services. This is because I doubt that the system I describe can coexist with systems of government-run redistribution.

When a government program makes distributions available, people start to see those distributions as entitlements, and this seems to destroy the whole idea of circles of support. I have two examples from my own experience.

Example A: An adult member of my family, being handicapped, relied on support from others most of his life. One time, when he asked me for money to upgrade his living quarters, I did not have it to give, but I did live in a house with empty rooms. Instead of money I offered a room in my house. However, he declined my offer because he had other resources including, notably, regular payments from a government redistribution program. He was, after all, only hoping to use my aid to get a better apartment than the one which he could afford with the government aid alone.

Here the government system undermined the circles of support which make private charity work. If a family member of mine gets into trouble, I think it is appropriate for me to try to support that member in a safety net which I erect. But in this case it turned out that government had erected a safety net higher than mine, which caught my family member before he could fall into my net. Thus, I think, the government-run system erodes the expectation that families should hang together and support one another.

Example B: Last year, when it came time for me to get a tetanus booster shot, I was dreading the thought of fighting my way through the "private" health care system. (The "private" system may retain some of the form of a free market system, but that form is so overgrown with regulation that one almost has to employ imagination to perceive it.) Just to get a simple shot, which I guess might cost $5 in a deregulated system, I thought I would probably have to pay for, and wait through, $50 worth of paperwork and other baloney.

Then it occurred to me to check out the local government-run Health Department. I got my shot, free and surprisingly easy. Now I know that sometimes a libertarian on a moral streak will decline to accept a value which has been taken forcibly from others. At times I decline. And I feel proud when I do. But this time I admit I just took it.

And that is the point I want to exemplify. When the government runs a system of redistribution and offers a value for free to the recipient, it creates a new innermost circle of support. Normally I would pay for my own shot. But when government offers a handout many will take it even in preference to relying on themselves.

I mentioned in the previous section that I am unsure how hard I should try to find strangers in need. My reluctance to help strangers stands, in part, upon my knowledge that governments run dozens of handout programs. To most strangers in need I think I could justifiably say, "I gave at the office," meaning I paid taxes, and "I expect the government runs at least one program which you could fit into if you tried." I feel that I might be a sucker if I give to this stranger and thus give twice. The existence of government-run programs makes me mistrust the prospect of giving out of my own pocket to strangers in need.

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Sociology: The Search for a Moral Application

I would like to wrap up this article with an affirmative note, with a positive observation in applied sociology. I have noticed that interesting things happen in groups when they vote with their voices, saying "aye" or"nay."

In small groups, it seems to me, people tend to vote together, unanimously. Perhaps the closeness of the people to each other, facing one another, pretending to understand one another, creates an atmosphere in which all want to believe that together they hold the right opinion. When it comes to a vote in these small groups the Chair often expects no dissent, and charges ahead without pausing after asking for votes of "nay." But if one dissenter votes "nay" this tears at the comfort in the group, and people feel uneasy in their seats. In contrast, I have noticed that in larger groups, such as a legislature, they get used to hearing dissent, and the fun of ruling is not ruined.

In one particular small group, the local Board of Social Services, the discomfort that can follow that single "nay" still persists, even though we have had a year and a half to get used to the pattern. So I would like to tell what pleasure it brings me when I am able to vote with the majority. I look forward to those votes when we all feel comfy and together, such as when we approve the minutes of the previous meeting. But my favorite time to sing my "aye" in unison with the other four voices comes in the ritual at the end of each meeting, when we vote on the motion to adjourn. D

Richard Hammer owns a small business building houses in Hillsborough, North Carolina. He writes frequent columns, interpreting political events in a libertarian frame. On three occasions he has run for local political office. In the past he worked as an engineer and management scientist.

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