Christmas, Charity and the Welfare State

People often ponder the meaning of Christmas. It’s not clear what the great mystery exactly is. Christmas commemorates the birth of Jesus. True enough, more traditionalist Christians differ with so-called “progressives” about the divinity of Jesus. Whether or not, therefore, what we are memorializing is the day that God became human and sought in this manner to direct us towards eternal life — that remains a question. All Christians agree, though, that Jesus is to be remembered as a model of how to live ethically.  The moral necessity of imitating the model he set  is the meaning of Christmas, or at least a very core part of it.

While the Gospel accounts of Jesus display many of his virtues, one of these is overarching: charity. The First Letter to the Corinthians well summarizes Jesus’ moral teaching:  “And now there remain faith, hope, and charity, these three: but the greatest of these is charity” . To express charity is to selflessly give ourselves to others in a spirit of love.  In busying ourselves at this time of year in buying gifts for others, we end up practicing, even if somewhat imperfectly,  the charity that Christmas ultimately exalts.

Far from commercializing Christmas, capitalist economies serve to further this charity by generating the wealth that affords individuals the means of purchasing gifts.  More than any other economic system, it  produces a wide array of goods and services by which we can tailor our presents to the character and needs of the recipients.

What actually undermines charity is not the free market, but the social democratic welfare state.  Philanthropic functions that were originally performed by voluntary groups have progressively been taken over by the government.  Britain once had numerous “friendly societies” that took care of its members when struck by sickness, accidental injury, unemployment, or the loss of income from the death of a family member. In the United States, a similar role was played by fraternal societies.  Such organizations also existed in Canada.  But they either disappeared, or became mere clubs, as the welfare state grew to insure people against societal and natural risks.

The welfare state also gives people an easy way to evade personal sacrifices for others. When confronted with poverty and suffering, it allows one to say:  “I gave when I filled out my tax forms. That’s what government is for”.  In fact, there is some social science evidence (though, admittedly, not conclusive) to suggest government spending crowds out charitable donations.

Consider, too,  the 2010 World Giving Index. This is constructed by tabulating the percentage of a country’s population that gives money and time or helps a stranger.  Among the top 10, we find what are sometimes called the Anglo-Saxon capitalist countries. That is, Australia (1st), New Zealand (2nd), Canada (3rd), Ireland (3rd as well), USA (5th), and the United Kingdom (8th). Switzerland, which has a relatively small state, is in 5th place. The only social democracies in the top 10 are the Netherlands (7th) and Austria (10th).  Very interestingly, the Nordic countries fare relatively poorly. Denmark comes in at 18th, Norway at 25th, while Finland and Sweden tied for 45th.

But the most significant way in which the welfare state opposes charity is its reduction of our freedom. No act can truly be moral unless the person doing it is free.  By turning social assistance from an opportunity for charity into a requirement of justice,  those who’d help the less fortunate without state compulsion are stripped the chance of exemplifying true charity. While those who would not give anything to others without the spur of coercion are allowed to delude themselves about their justice.

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