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How would you like half a million dollars? There are only two conditions for you to receive it. The first is that you give it all away to the poor. That is disappointing, but on reflection still attractive: Quite nice to be able to give away $500,000 to those in need. The second condition is that you give it away efficiently. This means you must be able to show it went to those most in need, that they did not waste it, that it did not encourage them to become dependent on such generosity, and that it did not destroy incentives to work and independence. No, thank you.

Giving away money is easy, provided you’ve got enough in the first place. But giving away money efficiently is very difficult. And that remains true whether the donor is the state, a voluntary association, or an individual. In normal economic transactions markets provide knowledge. In particular, the amount the buyer is prepared to pay tells the seller the extent of the buyer’s wants. When money is given away the donor has to establish the recipient’s wants or needs for himself. How does one do so and do so reliably?

The modern church rightly tells the rich to give to the poor. It presents the problem as one of lack of generosity. And so, in part, it is. But the church has little to say about how the poor are to be identified, how much each one should get, how to establish priorities among claims for charity, which forms of help are best, and how to avoid help becoming harm.

This is partly because the church’s interest in poverty and riches has at least two motivations which have not infrequently been confused. St. Paul explains that we brought nothing into the world and we can take nothing out. As long as we have food and clothing we should be content. The desire for riches sets traps and temptations. The moral, often drawn, is that Christians should give excess money away so as to avoid temptations, to avoid distractions, and to unburden themselves.

St. Athanasius, in his life of St. Anthony, relates how Anthony (the father of all monks) heard in church the Gospel about Christ telling the rich young man to sell all he possessed, give the money to the poor, and follow Him. The saint, we are told, “immediately” went out and gave away to the villagers “some three hundred very fertile and pleasant acres so they would not be an encumbrance to him.” He then sold the rest of his land, giving some of the money to his sister, and the rest to the poor. On another occasion, he heard the Gospel about not being anxious for the morrow, this time he went out, gave away his sister’s small sum, and went off to lead the ascetic life in the desert.

What Anthony was up to is made very clear. It was not, primarily at any rate, poverty relief, let alone efficient poverty relief. It was unburdening himself, getting rid of the money so that it would not be “an encumbrance to him.” He was in an awful hurry, too. He went out “immediately” and did it. There is not much evidence of any thought for the poor. Did he get the best price for his goods so as to give away as much as possible? Did he establish that his own villagers needed the money more than the chaps in the next village? Was he worried that A and B might drink their share or that C might keep it all to himself and ignore his wife and children’s needs? Not that we are told.

There are other Christian traditions that would be more troubled by these questions than St. Anthony was–the question of stewardship is one, and that associated with Pascal’s dictum that thinking hard is the first moral duty is another. And the moment we do take these questions seriously we see just how difficult it is to give money away efficiently so as to maximize poverty relief.

There are three broad channels. We can give the money to the state in taxes and allow it to help the poor on our behalf. We can channel it through a voluntary association. Or we can give it directly to the poor ourselves. State welfare is liable to a number of problems. In many countries it has not resulted in a net shift of wealth to poorer people. Often taxes are imposed on those in need while benefits are received by those who do not need them most. State welfare is liable to hijacking by those who work in the bureaucracy and substitute their own goals for those of the organization. It does not have the detailed knowledge of who is in need, what exactly they need, and what help might solve such needs. How could it? Its recipients are legion and it cannot build up a profile of each that is any more than the roughest of outlines. State welfare can either help large numbers of people–in which case it cannot afford to help anyone much, or it can concentrate on targeting small numbers–in which case it needs a massive bureaucracy to identify them. It is also caught in a double bind in that helping those already in need sets incentives which attract future members into the needy class.

These and other problems are well-known. What they mean is that dutifully paying one’s taxes does not mean one can assume one has discharged one’s obligation to the poor. Worse, it will quickly be seen that several of the problems that beset state welfare may subvert voluntary welfare, too. And voluntary welfare presents other problems, most obviously those of ethical particularism. Given that there are lots of groups of people in different types of need–not only the blind, the orphaned, the dying, but also the needy of my own family, needy neighbors, needy fellow countrymen and the needy of other countries–to whom do I owe precisely what?

That puzzle affects direct relief too, and so does a general tendency of modern societies. Previously, in less changing and mobile societies, people knew personally, at first hand, those in need about them. Perhaps St. Anthony already knew who needed the money most in his village. But most of us do not have this knowledge today. When most of us pass the beggar by the train station on the way to work we have no idea whether he is a genuine beggar or one of the many who choose begging in preference to working. We know no more of the individuals we offer our money to directly than we do when we pay our taxes.

It is sometime said that state welfare is in crisis. That is true. But it would be truer to say that all welfare is in crisis. If you believe that our duty to the poor requires that we try to give relief efficiently and successfully, then today’s world offers a daunting prospect indeed. Giving money away is indeed difficult. It is a difficulty rendered worse by the way the churches persist in seeing poverty relief as purely a generosity problem, whereas it is also, in fact largely, a technical problem.

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