Is it possible to take a principled stand against the idea of charity?

 At Christmastime, surely it can only be callous and selfish to suggest that charity has, in some way a negative side. Charity is seen in our society to be compassionate, a selfless act in which everyone can participate in, which can make you feel good and also helps those less fortunate than you. In the UK in 2014 alone, according to the Charities Aid Foundation, 79% of Brits gave to charity at least once, giving a total of £10.6 billion to good causes across the year. That’s £29 million per day, enough to build 166,000 new homes or, if you’re careful, enough to set up your own Trident programme. Doesn’t this show that charity is an incredibly useful thing, able to provide where people slip through the gaps and help those who no-one else will help? Well, it does but that is where the problem, or at least the part of it lies. The point of this piece is not to argue against the misuse of charity, be it the siphoning of funds or the, at times, unethical practices of charities, such as investment in the tobacco industry or cold-calling the elderly. The point is to argue that charity in itself can be detrimental to human dignity, demonstrates a broken society and is inefficient at what it does and then show why, in fact, it may not be so terrible as I’ve made it out.

So, to begin, how can charity possibly be detrimental to human dignity? The answer is simple when you understand why it is that some people give to charity. Often, when people give to charity, they do so not out of pure good or compassion – they may do so to impress a friend, out of guilt or just because they have a spare 50p in their pocket so they don’t have to look away when the pass someone holding a donations box in the street. Whilst their act may be considered good, if their intention is not to help someone because they should rather than because they can or to feel good about themselves then what is the point of the action? Giving money to a charity without compassion or a feeling of duty, is comparable to a feudal lord brushing the crumbs from the table to the floor so that a peasant may eat them. Compare this system of helping the needy to a system of state benefits and then you see a difference in how the individual receiving charity feels. If you are receiving benefits, you receive them because you are a citizen and it is your right to be helped by the state. If you receive charity, you receive it under the guise that an individual may have given money to feel good, or to look good, with the help you receive being a by-product of their self-righteous ego. You will even hear people say, “I don’t want your charity.” for they would rather not be used as a means to give someone pleasure, rather than be respected. Private giving does not respect the individual as much as state aid. Take this not just from me, Clement Attlee, someone very difficult to disregard as man of weak moral character said of charity: “Charity is a cold, grey, loveless thing. If a rich man wants to help the poor, he should pay his taxes gladly, not dole out money on a whim.”

Clement Attlee, Prime Minister between 1945 – 1951 and also an advocate for questioning the value of charity

Aside from the question of the ethics of charity relating to the dignity of the individual, the question must also be asked of what charity shows about the society in which it exists. To me it is clear the the necessity of charity is a sign of an inherently broken society. In the 21st century, nations have incredible power and equally impressive budgets, as well as technology which could only have been dreamed of 100 years ago. It is undeniable that, in the richest nations, such as the UK, the resources are available for the most extreme conditions of deprivation; poverty, starvation and homelessness to be completed removed from society. And yet examine the evidence: during any one night in 2015 at least 3,500 people were sleeping homeless, 1.1 million emergency food packages being issued by the Trussell Trust and 19.3 million living in poverty in the UK, according to the Office of National Statistics. Those figures are not signs of a modern society and yet these problems were solved after 1945 through national effort and was continued by the One-Nation Tories under MacMillan. Clearly, these figures, the blight of extreme poverty in our society is no accident. We have the capacity to solve these problems, but when a Government decided they cannot be bothered to care for its citizens, where is the slack picked up? Charity. I propose that charitable donations increase, as Government expenditure on social welfare falls. If there was no poverty in the country, there would be no need for charity – charity is used to cover-up the failings of a system.

Finally and on a more pragmatic note, charity is unable to deal effectively with the issues which they aim to solve. Take the donations given by the British public in 2014: £10.6 billion. It sounds like a lot, enough for a Trident programme, but put in context against the Government’s budget for Social Welfare spending, even a Conservative one which has slashed budgets, was £217 billion, according to independent fact-checker, Full Fact. A charity which aims to solve the issue of poverty, cannot hope, other than in very small concentrated efforts that would affect few, deal with the scourge of homelessness or similar, even if they had all of the £10.6 billion, which they wouldn’t anyway. This may be misunderstanding the purpose of charities, which may exist at a local or community level but the point stands: alone, a charity cannot solve the pressing issues. The NHS could not have been built for instance, with the donations of people on a whim. It survives and protects by being an instrument of the state which is wielded (or should be) for good and for the benefit of the citizenry. Charities have neither the money nor structure to compare.

In brief, that is my theoretical argument against charity, but notice I add theoretical. In the real world it is important to be pragmatic and not to reach for unattainable ideas at the cost of changing the world for good. Charitable giving, whether the intention be good or not, helps people in reality, as opposed to saving their dignity in theory and it is important for any idealist to remember that. My argument is not fully water-tight, I understand that when people genuinely give to charity out of compassion that it is worth something, that it can help people and that, if the Welfare State cannot cover the poorest, out of accident or policy, we should be glad that people are prepared to be moral when the Government is not. Basically, my opinions on charity in real-terms are a mix of the theory and pragmatic thinking: When we have the diseases of poverty, hunger or otherwise in our society, charity can ease the symptoms, but only the Government can administer the cure.

Thank you for reading this piece of theoretical thinking! What do you think about charity? Does the intention matter? Is Government policy the only way societal issues can be fixed?

Due to Christmas being next Sunday, there shall be no piece for that day, but expect a lengthy look at 2016 and its events before the New Year. Have a happy Christmas!