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Wanted: a Ministry of Good Works

27 March 2015

Charity should not begin at home, but with government, suggests Harriet Baber

EVERY weekday I get mail from a variety of charities soliciting my support. Most of the begging letters come with extensive literature featuring pictures of starving children and bedraggled animals. Charities are sophisticated operators. They search extensive databases that include my profile, gleaned from my history of Amazon transactions, and Facebook "likes": they know the sorts of projects to which I'm likely to contribute.

I don't mind the fact that extensive information about my preferences, interests, and political views is floating in the ether; or that non-profit-making companies can buy it. It's the waste that bothers me. Operating in the market, charities spend lavishly on marketing. They have to. They need money to finance good works, and the only way to get money is by selling themselves to donors. So they employ legions of administrators and clerical workers to do research, maintain websites, and produce junk mail. 

THERE are more than a million public charities in the US, including a number of meta-charities, which collect information about charities for prospective donors, and solicit donations for their work. That's the way Americans like it. The welfare state in other countries does many of the jobs our "non-profits" do, but Americans, who assume that everything government does is inefficient and corrupt, won't have it. So government covers its tracks by outsourcing social services to non-profits, including churches and other religious organisations. And Americans are delighted that good works are, as they see it, being done without the involvement of stifling government bureaucracy.

To deal with government, however, these non-profits employ cadres of grant-writers to petition government bureaucrats, who process their applications for the block grants that finance their good works. If you're getting a sense of déjà vu, you may be thinking of Jim Hacker's Ministry of Administrative Affairs, which employed multitudes of civil servants to promote efficiency, cut waste, and supervise other civil servants.

I would prefer a Ministry of Good Works, funded by taxes (may they rise!) to do the work that these charities do. The creation of such a government agency would instantly cut junk mail in half, and wipe out millions of non-profit bureaucrats' jobs. Since we all want some say about how our money is spent, there could be provision for choosing where, in general terms, it was to go. I'd rather fill out a simple form designating 80 per cent for left-wing politics, 15 per cent for poverty alleviation and 5 per cent for animal welfare than handle piles of mail with heart-wrenching stories of Third World poverty and pictures of sick cats.

THE poor will always be with us. No matter how good a Ministry of Good Works gets, there will always be needy humans and other animals who fall through the cracks. There will always be work for people of good will to do; and a role for churches. But the role will be minor, as it should be: promoting the general welfare is the job of the state.

American Evangelicals are convinced that Jesus preached capitalism; liberal Christians believe he preached socialism. I don't think he did either. As far as I can see, he was interested in ends rather than means - in making people better off by whatever means were most effective. No one could claim that of the charity market. 

Harriet Baber is Professor of Philosophy at the University of San Diego.

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