No to charity. Yes to rights.

Being charitable is generally seen as an admirable thing. It also often makes you feel better about yourself – you’ve helped someone vulnerable, someone less fortunate. Everyone wins. Or do they?

I just read this piece by Mike Konczal in Democracy Journal. It’s basically about how the US conservatives’ arguments that private charity will step in to support those in need if the role of the state is minimised, and that state interventions to support those need have a negative effect on private giving, are false. The article gives a good historical overview of state support to the needy in the US, concluding that:

“The public’s role in combating the Four Horsemen by providing for social insurance doesn’t kill private charity. It allows it to fully thrive. It enables private charity to respond with targeted and nimble aid for individuals and communities, rather than shouldering the huge, cumbersome burden of alleviating the income insecurities of a modern age. A public social insurance state gives every individual the security necessary to take risks, which enriches both our economy and our society. And it also establishes a baseline of equality and solidarity among all citizens, so that charity enhances the lives of the less fortunate instead of forcing them to rely on those with money and luck.”

I don’t disagree. What’s missing in the piece however is the fundamental acknowledgment that every single human being has a set of inviolable rights, and that the state – as the duty-bearer – has a duty to promote and protect these rights. As such, any state that leaves private charity to fulfill the rights of its citizens – from access to health care, to adequate housing – puts the respect of its citizens’ human rights at the mercy of those who can afford to, and are willing to, be charitable. That’s just not good enough, particularly when private charity regularly comes with strings attached.

So Konczal is right to argue for a public social insurance state. What would merit stressing further is that only such a state can guarantee the protection and promotion of its population’s human rights. Charity can’t do that.


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