On page 4 of last Monday’s Metro Toronto, journalist Jessica Smith detailed the heroic actions of Toronto chef andÂ restaurateur Rodney Bowers, as he joined Vancouver chef and restaurateur Mark Brandâ€™s effort to addressÂ poverty in his community.
The Brand-Bowers plan to address this great social ill is simple: They sell tokens for $2.25 at theirÂ restaurants, which can be exchanged for a free sandwich. The people who buy these tokens then give themÂ away to those in need. The reason Bowers is bringing this program to Toronto is because of its immenseÂ success in Vancouver: according to Brand, he’s redeeming 120 tokens a day.
But no good deed goes unpunished. Apparently, other activists have spoken out against this programÂ as “demeaning” andâ€”horror of all horrorsâ€”doing the governmentâ€™s job.
One such critic is York University’s Ilan Kapoor, who is a professor of critical development studies (whichÂ involves critiquing economic development from post-Marxist, feminist, etc. perspectives). He brushesÂ off Bowers and Brand as providing merely â€œa Band-Aid kind of solution, because it doesnâ€™t address theÂ broader problems of hunger and, larger than that, joblessness and inequality.â€ He says the problem withÂ private charity is it allows “private individualsâ€”celebrity chefs in this caseâ€”to decide (how to feed peopleÂ in need) and we as the audience who buy these meal tickets should not be making decisions on who weÂ want to give them to based on our whims and fancies.” He offers as his solution “a state-funded, fairÂ system of distribution.”
The problems with Kapoorâ€™s criticisms are two fold. First is his dismissal of Band-Aid solutions seeminglyÂ in general. But Band-Aids still serve an important function. Bowers easily dismisses Kapoor here. â€œSomeÂ critics are going to say itâ€™s dehumanizing or degradingâ€¦ but whatâ€™s dehumanizing and degrading is thatÂ those people are still hungry.â€
Second, Kapoor commits the fallacy of ascribing action to a collective. Put simply, only individuals act. IfÂ a group of people were to stand naked before you, you could not, merely by looking, assert that you wereÂ looking at the Ontario Legislative Assembly, or the Toronto City Council, or just group of strangers withÂ no connection to each other. We can only ascribe identity to collectives once we understand what theÂ individuals that make up collectives themselves understand about their condition.
So when Kapoor says he is in favour of â€œa state-funded, fair system of distributionâ€ as opposed to privateÂ individuals distributing their money how they please, he is fact favouring a system where arbitrarilyÂ chosen individuals (the state) decide how to spend other peopleâ€™s money. What he is saying isÂ that arbitrarily chosen individuals can somehow avoid the follies and weaknesses of everyone else, andÂ will not succumb to the twin demons of â€œwhimâ€ and â€œfancyâ€.
Recently deceased Nobel Laureate James Buchanan spent his entire career demonstrating that justÂ because you are an arbitrarily chosen manager of other peopleâ€™s money, does not mean that your heartÂ becomes hardened with indifference. It does not mean you become immune to persuasion. And surelyÂ you do not suddenly become a nonemotive, friendless, dispassionate, calculating robotic bureaucratÂ concerned only with the attainment of the elusive â€œgreater goodâ€.
Politicians are people before entering office, and remain human beings while they are in office. They buildÂ relationships and owe debts of gratitude, like the rest of us. They also, like the rest of us, try to help outÂ their friends whenever they can. They make a lot â€œfriendsâ€ when theyâ€™re in office, too.
The only difference between us and them is that, unlike private people, every bit of help a politicianÂ offers a friend through the state is at the expense of every single other member of the community.
And because the state has vastly more resources at its disposal than any private entity, politicians areÂ actually more susceptible to be bribed, co-opted, blackmailed, and tempted & tantalized with promises ofÂ great riches and glory in order to game the system to advantage of themselves and their â€œfriendsâ€.
Private charity should be embraced with open arms, precisely for the reasons that Professor KapoorÂ decries it so. It is precisely because private charities allow individuals to determine for themselves howÂ to help others, that makes private charity more judicious, economical, creative, and just a little bit moreÂ human.