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The Voluntarism Fantasy


“Helping the Poor–Gratuitous Distribution of Coal by the City–Cherry Street,” New York City, 1877

Konczal’s essay on the voluntarism fantasy of conservatives who argue that private charity used to operate as a functional charity distributor before the big bad state destroyed individualism is pretty definitive. Konczal correctly destroys this myth and spits out its remains, showing how the state has always been involved in any meaningful welfare work in this country and that the problem with the pre-New Deal welfare programs is that the state wasn’t nearly involved enough. I’d only add to this essay that federally subsidized westward expansion was also part of this welfare state, as Republicans especially explicitly saw the frontier as a social safety net that would alleviate poverty without directly giving charity to people.

Really, the Hooverism of Paul Ryan and other Republican granny starvers isn’t just wanting to destroy the federal welfare state, it’s also that they, like Hoover, hold onto myths of an individualistic past that never existed.

James Kwak has more commentary.

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  • Nobdy

    The great thing about private charity is that you can give it to only the deserving poor. So you can force people to do things like convert to Christianity or lick your boots or shut up when you sexually abuse them or whatever you want.

    Public “entitlements” are given to all citizens or residents and while MAYBE you can drug test recipients or force them to do makework at low wages you definitely can’t make them blow you or renounce Islam in exchange for benefits.

    Republicans want to be able to control the poor and make them even more like serfs who must please the masters if they want so much as a morsel of bread or a shingle between them and the rain. That’s the real problem with state benefits. Poors will see themselves as people with agency and hope if they get things like foodstamps and section 8. Then who will grovel before the petty little kings of industry for a crust of bread? Who will listen to their hypocritical lectures?

    • Exactly. Someone gets to decide if you’re worthy to live or not.

      • Aren’t you married?

        • Fortunately her first husband was such a piece of trash that he set the bar very low for me.

          I need to send that bastard a thank-you note someday.

          • Heh. I’m in the same position. He lives in L.A., so maybe I should send him a bottle of water.

    • Warren Terra

      MAYBE you can drug test recipients

      definitely you can drug-test recipients. It’s ludicrously expensive, costs vastly more than it saves in denied benefits, and it’s terribly cruel – but it doesn’t half help to line the pockets of the drug-testing firm you owned until you transferred the title to your wife.

      • Mixed Metaphor Man

        well they do it, but has it been challenged in court?

    • wengler

      It’s always been about this. Conservatives love hierarchy. They abhor any system in which people may feel equal or ‘entitled’ to a better life.

      If you listen to Paul Ryan or any paleocon the gist of their message is that since government provides ‘stuff’ without the stamp of authority or responsibility(not even true but it’s part of the core of their argument), the poor(especially the urban poor) run wild and don’t know their place in the hierarchy. It’s racism for those that would be offended to be called racists. The implicit conceit is that everything was better when the poor and non-pale knew their place.

      As far as private charity taking up the slack, they don’t really care. Get some do gooder to look after you, die, whatever, just maintain your place in the hierarchy and don’t bother me is their attitude.

      • slightly_peeved

        If you oppose government charity, then you’re viewing charity as a way to make the giver feel better, rather than as a way to make the receiver feel better. At it’s worst, it’s more PR than charity, as was pointed out 2000 years ago by the guy these conservatives claim to worship.

      • Theo

        What if someone’s entitlement to a better life requires allocating resources from another? Does that mean that the other person is entitled to a worse life?

        • Someone hasn’t noticed that parenthood exists.

          • Theo

            Oh. Wengler was talking about parenthood? I missed that. I thought he was talking about adult citizens feeling entitled to a better life. I wondered if he was ignoring the other side of that.

            I’m pretty fascinated by positive vs. negative rights. I agree that there are moral situations that invoke positive rights. Parenthood is the best example. Is it the only example?

            • Are you your brother’s keeper?

              • Theo

                I don’t have a brother.

            • DrDick

              It is called social responsibility. You did not get where you are or what you have on your own. Thousands, if not millions, of people helped you get there and you have a responsibility to share those benefits with others.

              • Theo

                I agree, generally, but where does that get us? I’m not sure what a poor bum can share with me, at least in terms of tangible objects. I could share a great deal with him, but I’m not sure that he played even an indirect role in where I am. Chances are, his are not among the set of millions of shoulders upon which I stand.

                Is my obligation to share really dependent on assistance from others? If, if I can, by some method, eliminate individuals or groups of people from that pool of assistance, am I then free of obligation to them?

                • I agree, generally, but where does that get us?


                • DrDick

                  Are you really that stupid or just a sociopath?

            • Jordan

              Is it the only example?

              No. Even within bog-standard American law, you have a right to an attorney in criminal cases, for example. Within an adequate social setup, there are many more.

              • Theo

                I was thinking of positive natural rights, but this a good example of positive legal right.

        • Unhinged Liberal

          What if someone’s entitlement to a better life requires allocating resources from another? Does that mean that the other person is entitled to a worse life?

          Why yes, it does. It’s called socialism wealth transfer.

          Welcome to the new age,to the new age
          Welcome to the new age,to the new age
          Whoa, oh, oh, oh, oh, whoa, oh, oh, oh
          ObamaNation, ObamaNation

          • Nobdy

            The Republican Anthem:

            We are the oppressed Republicans
            Forced to give up our fourth houses so the poor can live
            Why must I suffer just so you can survive?
            Why must I make do with slightly less so you can have something?
            We are the oppresed Republicans

          • https://www.google.com/search?q=%22socialism+wealth+transfer%22

            Apparently “socialism wealth transfer” has been mentioned by nearly nobody ever. Using Common Sense Standards in which Everybody Knows What’s What I am forced to conclude that “socialism wealth transfer” does not exist.

        • Nobdy

          The old “If we give the poors a crust of bread we’ll have to forgo the third helipad on our second megayachts!” argument. Truly my heart breaks for the poor poor oligarch who has to make do with only 11 private islands (BOUGHT WIHT MONEY HE EARNED THROUGH HIS OWN HARD WORK AND NOBODY ELSE’S HE USED NO ROADS NO INFRASTRUCTURE NO PUBLIC EDUCATED EMPLOYEES NO NOTHING SO SHUT YOUR MOUTH LIZ WARREN) so some BUM can not die of cancer.

          I go to bed every night with a tear stained face thinking about how much worse his life is because of these DAMNED public charity laws!

          • Theo

            Fair enough. So some people are entitled to a better life at the expense of others. I’m not horrified by that. But how do you decide. What’s the ethical, political, or principled method you use to draw the line? Why not weigh entitlements based on social worth? Why not measure social worth by some standardized fungible means? Why not call those means dollars?

            • DrDick

              Apparently the oligarchs think so. They most certainly did not earn their wealth, but rather stole it from workers and consumers.

            • Nobdy

              It’s not a zero sum game and if you think dollars are a measure of SOCIAL worth you’re trading too many social worth coupons for crack cocaine.

              Dollars are a means of distributing tangible and service based resources. Sometimes when through various means resources are distributed outside a rather broad range of acceptable options it is necessary to redistribute them. This is done so nobody suffers unnecessarily not to arbitrarily give some a better life at the expense of others. I’m not going to reinvent the Rawlsian wheel in a blog comment but these faux naive “but why would we do it that way instead of this way” claims are either made in bad faith or just show a complete lack of empathy and care for your fellow human beings.

              • Theo

                I think social worth is probably pretty accurate. If more people find something valuable, or people find something more valuable, that thing is generally more expensive. I’m sure there are exceptions, just as I’m sure they’re exceptions.

                So far, we have “social responsibility,” empathy, caring, and something along the lines of envy, as reasons for the yacht owner to share with the bum. You really expect the yacht owner to be convinced by these reasons? Why should he?

                • Nobdy

                  Dollars are and were routinely handed out arbitrarily. Libertardians like to pretend that everyone started out with a plot of land and the same resource and some got rich and some got poor through the market and blah blah. In fact innumerable fortunes were made through crime and graft and slavery and other maldistributions to the point where the market ceases to have any useful meaning as a measure of merit. In your stupid vision of the world if someone gets a billion dollars through theft or graft or dint of birth and then decides to spend 100,000 on a statute of himself that statute is worth 100,000 social worth units, while if an honest man gets 100 dollars through hard work and spends all 100 on medicine for his sick child that medicine is worth 100 units, and if the merchant won’t part with the medicine for less than 150 then the child’s life is worth less than 150 (because nobody will pay it for the medicine.)

                  This is clearly poppycock and bulltwaddle. The market is useful in the short term to direct various efforts but it is not anything close to a measure of merit.

                  Fortunately for us we have a state and a standing army so we don’t need to convince the Yacht owner to hand over the medicine money for the child. We take it through taxes. Now I know you have just peed yourself and cried “BARBARISM! THIEVERY!” but in fact that same army is the only reason that the masses don’t take the Yacht owner’s EVERYTHING. The army protects his riches more than it steals them. The social order benfits the rich enormously because without it only warlords would thrive and most modern rich people would make terrible warlords. So the Yacht owner pays taxes that save the child’s life as the price of being in a system where being good at marketing his money losing hedge fund entitles him to a yacht.

                • Another Holocene Human

                  +1 although some rich dudes do fancy themselves excellent warlords… a lot of them have gotten shot pursuing this fantasy.

                • Lee Rudolph

                  Not enough of them. Not nearly enough.

                • Tyro

                  I have met a lot of rich people, and they have no social worth to me, in generally. Socially they’re pretty worthless. Money is a measure of economic worth created/captured/bequeathed to an individual. Their money plays little if any role in making public life more socially valuable. I myself receive no social benefit from them, so I can’t see how I would regard them as having social worth by dint of their wealth.

                • You really expect the yacht owner to be convinced by these reasons? Why should he?

                  Because if he doesn’t, some day his head — or the head of his heir, or his heir’s heir — will be hanging from the yacht’s mast.

                • some day his head — or the head of his heir, or his heir’s heir — will be hanging from the yacht’s mast.

                  Cue “Pirate Jenny”:

                  And the ship, the black freighter
                  With a skull on its masthead
                  Will be coming in.

              • Theo

                Regarding social worth and currency, I didn’t say it was perfect. In fact, I said there were exceptions. You identified one. But generally, it’s an efficient system. That’s why every nation uses it.

                “If the merchant won’t part with the medicine…”

                Why doesn’t the government simply require the merchant to give the medicine away? Or better yet, allow the honest man to take the medicine and leave $100. Why involve the honest man or merchant in the yacht owner’s life at all?

                Also, I don’t think taxes are thievery. I do think they should be used for limited purposes.

                “This is clearly poppycock and bulltwaddle.”

                Clearly. Or maybe its the exceptions I mentioned.

                • Nobdy

                  The exceptions are so deeply embedded in the system that the whole thing quickly unravels as a worthles means of asserting social merit. Behind nearly every great fortune lies a great crime of one kind or another. Maybe not of the holder of the fortune but of his ancestor or the society he grew up in. The Yacht owner is involved in the medicine issue because he is part of the same social fabric. He has a responsibility to be part of the society that protected and nurtured his wealth. Fortunately he doesn’t have to spend time seeking out worthy causes to give money to. In a good society he can relax on his yacht, pay his taxes, and the government, the manifestation of that just society’s will, will make sure the poor are fed and the babies have their medicine, along with keeping warlords from seizing the yacht. Splendid!

                • DrDick

                  Clearly you are a bog standard delusional libertarian sociopath.

            • Mixed Metaphor Man

              So some people are entitled to a better life at the expense of others.

              no everyone is entitled to at least a decent life. While that’s probably impossible to achieve, it shouldn’t fail for lack resources.

            • Tyro

              There are no positive or negative freedoms which are impacted, unless you are going to argue that people poorer than that hypothetical person are less free. And if you are going to argue that, are you going to say that freedom is dependent on how much money you have? If you are going to argue that, then redistribution isn’t just a societal good, it is a moral imperative.

              I view aid to the poor and economic advancement of all classes as a practical good to be encouraged. If, on the other hand, as you argue, you are “less free” if you have less money, than an extremely radical form of wealth redistribution is an absolute necessity from a moral point of view.

              • Pseudonym

                Contra Kristofferson, having less money does mean having less freedom in a practical sense. The yacht owner is free to go yachting. He is also free to acquire $150 medicine. Property rights are just restrictions on other people’s freedom to use said property.

            • There’s no “expense of others”. There is the expense of the commonwealth. People pay taxes to the commonwealth in exchange for being able to live and do business under the commonwealth’s laws. Once the money is in the government’s hands it is the government’s money, not the taxpayer’s.

            • GiT

              why not weigh obligations on the basis of capacities? Why not measure capacities by some standardized fungible means? Why not call those means dollars?

        • Tyro

          Redistribution of wealth doesn’t make the lives of the wealthy in any way worse by any realistic metric.

          • Nobdy

            Have you ever tried to make do with two helipads on your backup yacht?

          • Theo

            Freedom. Is freedom a realistic measure? Does redistributing wealth limit choices of those from whom the wealth is redistributed? Does limited choices limit freedom? I would argue yes to all of those.

            • Anonymous

              Does redistributing wealth limit choices of those from whom the wealth is redistributed?

              More to the point, does it increase the freedom of others, and what is the tradeoff? Or are we just being stupidly libertarian? I would argue yes to both of those.

              • Malacypse

                And who redistributed my damn cookies?

            • http://imslp.org/wiki/Special:ImagefromIndex/286170

              You know what’s the real opression? Theoretical oppression!

              • Liam

                Haha oops.

                • Lee Rudolph

                  Joanne Josepho Fux?

            • Tyro

              Let me put this in the place it belonged:

              There are no positive or negative freedoms which are impacted, unless you are going to argue that people poorer than that hypothetical person are less free. And if you are going to argue that, are you going to say that freedom is dependent on how much money you have? If you are going to argue that, then redistribution isn’t just a societal good, it is a moral imperative.

              I view aid to the poor and economic advancement of all classes as a practical good to be encouraged. If, on the other hand, as you argue, you are “less free” if you have less money, than an extremely radical form of wealth redistribution is an absolute necessity from a moral point of view.

              • Brownian

                You said what I wanted to say, but much, much better.

            • slightly_peeved

              Congratulations – as Tyro pointed out, you’ve made a strong moral case for socialism. Taking 1 billion of a 5 billion dollar fortune and using it to pay for healthcare for a large group of sick people is a vast increase in total freedom. one person’s freedom is negligibly decreased for a massive, life-changing increase in the freedom of hundreds.

              Freedom is a ridiculous measure to apply to how a government manages the currency which it prints and by whose imprimatur it holds worth. There is a tremendous amount of government support that allows wealthy people to remain wealthy; that ensures their property is usable, transferable, and protected.

          • Well, they might have to settle for the gold plated toilet seat on their Gulfstream V instead of the solid gold one.

            You can’t imagine the hardship.

        • Here’s the funny thing: people have actually done studies on how wealth affects our happiness and perceived quality of life, and it turns out there’s diminishing returns. After a certain point, money can’t actually buy happiness because you can’t actually perceive qualitative improvements any more. After that point, money is all about keeping score.

          So the question is – does redistributing some of the income of the wealthy actually make their lives worse?

          • Even aside from happiness, the marginal utility of a dollar diminishes rapidly over various thresholds. Does $10,000 have any meaningful effect on Bill Gates one way or another? Nope.

            • That too. At a certain point, one runs out of things to buy and prices cease to reflect difference in quality as much as they do positional goods.

          • Tristan

            I’ve read that a bigger wealth gap actually has negative effects on mental (and physical) health, outlook, general well-being, all that, across the board. Even the people on top suffer from being disproportionately on top. So a more aggressively redistributionist system, conceivably, wouldn’t just fail to have an excessively negative impact on the extremely wealthy, it would actually be good for them.

            • Theo

              Isn’t this the reverse of “those bums should work harder! Struggling builds character!”

        • Tristan

          I can think of plenty of public figures who are entitled to a worse life. Most of them are on your side of this debate.

    • louislouis

      You sir win bestest comment of the day.

    • Rob in CT

      I’ve come to believe this is key.

    • LeeEsq

      During the depression in the early 1890s, Protestant charities in New York City criticized the Catholic and Jewish charities for giving aid indiscriminately.

    • JL

      Of course, many Republicans would like the public social safety net to also only give benefits to what they consider the deserving poor, and have put a lot of work into that goal.

      • gaol, fixed that

        • Gregor Sansa

          plu∫ One.

          • Pseudonym

            I believe that iſ the wrong Eſs.

  • Chad

    I’m well aware that conservative concern-trolling over supposedly rampant welfare fraud is a deliberate red herring, but setting that aside for a moment: If conservatives are genuinely concerned about fraud, they should be far more concerned about private charities than government welfare.

    I’m not just referring to the usual “whoa thar look at those administrative costs!” criticism of the mega-charities. As we all know, that’s a complicated picture.

    No, the local level, where the voluntaristic magic is supposed to happen, is where I’ve seen the worst, most naked fraud. I wish I had hard evidence to back this up – I should really do some real research on the subject, in fact – but my anecdotal experience with the homeless shelters and soup kitchens of Atlanta has essentially been that they take donations and government money, provide a bare, bare minimum of quality service, and pocket the difference. I have known people who were attempting valiantly to make state and local governments aware of the fact that these shelters were not providing guests with the amount of food they had agreed to provide in exchange for their government grants.

    I’m sure some of this is cultural. Around here people are generally of the opinion that homeless people should be grateful to get anything at all, so sympathy for their plight is hard to come by. And I’ve certainly dealt with my share of wannabe-slumlords in this city who seem to be the right personality type to run a homeless shelter as a moneymaking scam.

    • burritoboy

      The big charities, though they have their own real sets of problems, tend not to be thoroughly openly and grotesquely corrupt or set up simply as tax shelters or total scams. The small ones can be nearly anything – some of them are truly amazingly great down to the ones which are fronts for money laundering and criminal activity.

    • NonyNony

      No, the local level, where the voluntaristic magic is supposed to happen, is where I’ve seen the worst, most naked fraud.

      Sure, but part of the conservative position would be that the only reason those corrupt charities exist is because the government is handing out money, and if all charities were run by religious organizations then this wouldn’t be an issue because people would be able to tell which ones were real charities and which ones were scams and would stop giving to the scams. But the government can’t do it because it’s incapable of doing anything except running the largest military on the planet.

      You may think that this is a strawman position, but I’ve had this argument with conservatives and libertarians (but I repeat myself) before. Since evidence means nothing to their arguments the existence of serial grifters like Pat Robertson and his ilk do not sway their opinion on the matter.

      • slightly_peeved

        I don’t think Komen gets much at all from the government. It does have the support of a lot of big corporations though. I guess those conservatives haven’t heard of pink-washing.

  • Fake Irishman

    Also see Theda Skocpol on a related topic:


    Republicans like to think that the great volunteer organizations that were formed to help the poor, provide/support education (e.g. the PTA) could replace government. But as Skocpol masterfully argues, these organizations formed in large part to make government act on pressing social needs.

    • JL

      Wow, thank you for this link. I had no idea about the history of the PTA.

      Relatedly, you also sometimes see voluntary organizations that, by doing something that government is either neglecting or doing poorly, shame government into taking up that function (or frighten it into doing so because they don’t want the voluntary organization getting the good PR). The Black Panthers’ Free Breakfast for Children, the forerunner of government breakfast programs in public schools, comes to mind. To name something that I was personally involved in, the Occupy Sandy/People’s Medical Relief volunteers who did medical canvassing in NYC high-rises also comes to mind, with the NYC government eventually (finally) took over the role after a few weeks of Occupiers doing it.

      • JoyfulA

        I was one of the Tri-Hi-Y members distributing Thanksgiving baskets to the needy (selected by “Does anybody know of somebody who’s needy?” I think). The tired-looking and disheveled woman who opened the door at the address I was given in a nonprosperous part of town denied she could use a Thanksgiving basket. “We’re just fine.” Through the doorway past her, I could see not much furniture, rickety and worn-out.

        It didn’t take long to know she was not about to take the food basket and thank me. I felt she needed the help but she needed her pride more. So I asked her for help. I told her I’d get in trouble if I took the basket back to school. I asked if she knew someone in bad shape who could use the basket. When she said she knew an old man in a bad way, I begged her to take the basket to him. She agreed, not very agreeably, and my mission was over.

        Which is how I became a leftie at 14, I think. I wanted to make sure all people had whatever they needed, and I didn’t want any Lady Bountiful involved. Let the dispassionate if cranky government maintain lives, and I’ll gladly hand over my taxes for that purpose.

      • Fake Irishman

        And a good add-on point yourself — I hadn’t heard that about the Black Panther.

  • burritoboy

    Frankly, though his overall thrust is correct, even Konczal misses some important examples. One of the most important is that the 19th century UK refused to create a public education system until the last years of the century, while the US and Germany created a system of free (through the university level) education system throughout. The private schools and private universities in the UK lobbied against public education and inhibited new public competitors until the very end of the century.

    The UK’s experiment simply grotesquely failed compared to the much stronger performance of the US and Germany’s public systems. The UK private schools simply couldn’t (and didn’t try to) keep up with the educational demands of the population. They mostly competed on how much they could resemble the most elite and aristocratic models (i.e., every British school wanted to be Eton because that’s how you attracted rich potential students). Because there was really no public education system, what did exist simply reinforced the already existing class structure. On the university level, it was even worse.

    • NonyNony

      Because there was really no public education system, what did exist simply reinforced the already existing class structure.

      Given my amateur read of 19th century history in the UK, this was probably considered a feature and not a problem at all.

      • burritoboy

        Unfortunately, that private education “system” quickly became a significant retardant on the UK’s economic growth. There was no way to educate large numbers of people at once. There were simply no structure or experience with doing so – most schools were very small, private enterprises intentionally run at the smallest possible unit size. That meant that the population’s work skills couldn’t be upgraded in any coordinated or comprehensive way, even when it became obvious that needed to happen.

        The wealthy and middle class of the UK maintained their class position by sacrificing lots of their potential wealth.

        • Chad

          “Better to be king of the dung heap than an equal in a prosperous society.”

          -Some rich sociopath, probably.

          • Mixed Metaphor Man

            Pharaoh Dung Beetle, the next Batman villain

        • njorl

          I wonder how much that contributed to the comparative rise of Germany and the US economically. The UK saw phenomenal economic growth in the early-mid 19th century, but the long-term trends in Germany and the US were better going back to the end of the US civil war and German unification. They surpassed the UK first in growth, then in GDP then in GDP per capita.

          I can see how any number of factors favored the US – expansionist land policy, immigration, lack of military expenses (1865-1917) etc. But Germany lost 2 world wars in that period. They lost territory. They were occupied by foreign militaries. I wonder how much that commitment to public education in an otherwise illiberal empire contributed to their current wealth.

          • burritoboy

            The education story above is pretty much Alfred Chandler’s explanation (ok, it’s a big part of it, not the entirety of it) for British economic decline from the late nineteenth century on.

        • guthrie

          I have a book or two from the period, and there was a lot of work done by people trying to persuade the government that introducing a proper school system more like the Germans would be a really good thing. But it took a long time to come, and the growing awareness that BRitain was falling behind was definitely a driver of improved schooling.

          However nowadays in the UK we have a deliberate policy of reversal of the gains of the 20th century, with the Tory bastards forcing schools to become ‘free’ schools which are beholden only to the Education office and not to the locals, and are usually run by a corporation or a bunch of religious nutters – one of the latters schools was shut down not long ago for being completely useless, but there’s many more that aren’t so bad and which don’t teach evolution in biology lessons. All down to Michael Gove, who is one of the more deluded, egotistical and dangerous fuckwits in the Tory government.

    • ajay

      One of the most important is that the 19th century UK refused to create a public education system until the last years of the century

      1870 in England, 1633 in Scotland.

      The UK’s experiment simply grotesquely failed compared to the much stronger performance of the US and Germany’s public systems.

      Literacy in 1900 Britain was significantly higher than in the US.

      Where do you get this stuff?

      • burritoboy

        Er, no. The situation in Scotland was an outlier (and was noted as such at the time) as opposed to England and Wales. And the vast majority of the population was in England.

        So, the 1870 act – it took until about 1880 to roll it out. Further, it only provided public education to age 13. There were still fees until 1890. Publically funded high schools took still longer to roll out (there were some publically funded high schools earlier funded by individual cities, but no comprehensive system) into the early twentieth century. The redbrick English public universities were only founded at the very end of the 19th century.

        Meanwhile, public education (which went into the university level) had been well established in the US about 30-50 years before the UK had – which is a pretty bad indictment, since plenty of the American cities had just been founded (San Francisco’s Lowell School was founded in 1856, for instance, 8 years after California joined the US). The American public universities actually appeared nearly 100 years before the UK redbricks.

  • Jayzooooooooos!

    Even the Ancient Egyptians, Assyrians, Chinese, Greek, Roman, and South and Central American empires, knew that they had to feed the people, one way or another.
    And that it was the governments job.

    But not our psychopathic and sociopathic Conservatives and Republicans!

    OH, HELL NO!

    It’s as if throwing a drowning person a lifesaver, would make that person dependent on others for life.

    It burns with the heat of a trillion billion suns!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    • Whooops!
      Sorta OT.

      • Yeah, makes you long for the days of competent dictators. They say that one of the few things that Ferdinand Marcos feared aside from a Communist take-over was the possibility of rice riots breaking out.

    • Unhinged Liberal

      Sha na na na – sha na na na na
      Sha na na na – sha na na na na
      Sha na na na – sha na na na na
      Sha na na na – sha na na na na
      Dip dip dip dip dip dip dip dip
      Mum mum mum mum mum mum
      Get a job
      Sha na na na – sha na na na na

      • Captain Haddock

        Say what you will about Jenny’s other lunatic posts, its creepy personal attacks on c u n d warrant the banhammer, IMHO.

        • Jordan

          I’m fairly sure the frontpagers would banhammer Jenny if they could (it’s not just the creepy personal attacks on c u n d, its also the REALLY creepy thing with MAJeff).

        • witless chum

          It is amazing how cartoonish he is. Creepy behavior showing a strong fixation on an openly gay gentleman and repitively attacking someone for being unemployed seem like a thing that liberal blog commenters would expect their troll to do, but the troll wouldn’t actually be stereotypical enough to do. But that’s our J-Dog.

  • Opie Elvis

    The Sunday NYT had a piece on billionaires directing science research funding. This all becomes part of a narrative that ignores public goods. It’s a way of justifying vast inequality by claiming that the wealthy will meet their greater obligations by donating to charitable pursuits that will clean up the rough edges caused by the predatory abuses of those wonderful markets.
    Warren Buffet’s “Giving Pledge”, based in part ion Andrew Carnegie’s charitable inclinations and philosophies is not a replacement for public goods nor it is a justification for rent seeking and predation that builds large fortunes. It is fundamentally undemocratic, the idea that a few people, by virtue of their wealth, should set the terms of society’s safety net, or how we direct scientific research, or what arts we support, or what lands we preserve.
    There is no replacement or substitute for the idea of public goods.

    • Nobdy

      Even Warren Buffet wants higher taxes. He does not claim that his giving pledge should replace government goods.

    • Chad

      This is why I get really annoyed over the way people fawn over Bill Gates. Yes, he’s done some good things with his money – malaria prevention being by far the best. (People like to fawn over his educational initiatives, too, but I think his corporate-friendly, standardized, STEM-oriented ideas on “fixing” education are among the worst uses of his money.) But there are better ways of addressing those problems than relying on the whims of the super-wealthy.

      I mean, the Yakuza contribute to disaster relief. That fact in itself doesn’t justify their wealth.

      • Nobdy

        Does Bill Gates oppose bigger government? I don’t think so. I think people appreciate him because nobody is making him give money away but he is, voluntarily, and to mostly good causes. Compared with the Koch brothers or other rich people who seem to have no interest in others in society it makes him a figure of optimism and hope. Appreciating that some rich people can want to give back is not the same as thinking this is the ideal way to fix the problems of society or the world.

        Comparing Bill Gates ruthless business tactics to the Yakuza is also somewhat unfair.

        • postmodulator

          Comparing Bill Gates ruthless business tactics to the Yakuza is also somewhat unfair.

          To whom?

          • Nobdy

            Bill Gates never killed anybody nor were his monopolistic moves anything close to true protection rackets. You don’t have to pretend he is some kind of paragon of virtue to differentiate him from a violent organization that traffics in women, murder, and various other unsavory activities.

            • Pseudonym

              Murder I’ll grant you, but I think most women would be surprised to learn that they are merely unsavory activities.

        • Bill Gates isn’t the issue, nor is Warren Buffett. There may very well be enlightened and fair minded wealthy people – there are – a society that allows the levels of inequality we are reaching and a society that has a Blanche DuBois mentality – relying on the kindness of strangers (or rich folks) will became fundamentally undemocratic.
          Gates and Buffett both seem to choose wisely but in some instances so do the Kochs, David has given a great deal to cancer research. On the other hand the Walton family has used tax loopholes to fund Alice Walton’s art museum while also getting around inheritance taxes.
          Should the arts or science solely rely on patrons, have we returned to 15th and 16th century Florence?
          Debating over whether Bill Gates has done good things really does tend to miss the larger point.

          • guthrie

            I think the modern answer re. science and art is interestingly mixed, but goes along the lines of,
            The public pay for what the rich fuckers want, in both subsidised research for corporations in universities and research biased towards ‘practical’ applicaitons, which means things that can be monetised for the benefit of the rich people and their companies.
            And subsidised museums and galleries and tax breaks for those who give money to them, but I bet the money isn’t spent on things plebs like, it’ll be things that the rich donors like.

            • Lee Rudolph

              James Simons, mentioned in the article for his support of some physics experiment or other, has given a lot of money for mathematics at Stonybrook (where he was a professor and chair of the department of mathematics before he founded his hedge fund) for research biased towards mighty damned ‘impractical’ applications (even if the Simons Institute is nominally for mathematics and physics, it’s definitely theoretical physics), but he’s definitely an exception in that crowd.

              • guthrie

                Certainly there seem to be more americans taking giving seriously; here in the UK the universities, well, you’ve seen the posts no doubt. And I hear its getting worse in Canada too.

              • Barry Freed

                Other than the mathematics and theoretical physics stuff at Stony Brook Simons has also built a very nice 80+ acre park in town dedicated to his late son. But that’s about it as far as I know.

    • UserGoogol

      It’s no replacement, but blaming charity per se seems like the wrong way to go about it. Rich people should be taxed more to pay for public goods, but if that’s not happening, them paying for public goods voluntarily is the next best thing. Undemocratic public goods are better than no public goods.

      And more generally, under any sort of economic system short of total communism, some people are going to have disposable income, and if they want to dispose of it by giving to charity, that’s good.

      • The problem with that is they get to choose which goods, and they aren’t fully public goods in that case, they and society will support.

        • Lee Rudolph

          Moreover, to the extent that donors to private charity can write off their donations as tax deductions (as Aimai has pointed out in other threads, some do give to charity without taking a deduction for it), not only do “they get to choose which goods” their donations go for, they effectively divert taxes paid by others to pay for their write-offs.

        • UserGoogol

          That’s not really what the phrase public good means. Yes, it’s bad when the rich are able to control the resources that society collectively uses, (as I said already) but they are still public goods. And undemocratic public goods are better than keeping the goods totally private, (by which I mean the wealth being used simply for the personal pleasure of the rich people in question) at least assuming that the charity isn’t directed towards actively harmful waste.

          • Not entirely. As the link points out public goods are nonexcludable. If a billionaire donates millions for cancer research but treats the discoveries as proprietary and uses patent or other exclusionary devices then the good isn’t truly public.
            I grant that I used the term a bit loosely but I would also suggest that the definition has been easing towards a less open interpretation of what is truly a public good. Public education becomes less public with charters and vouchers. Some donations of public type spaces increasingly come with exclusionary conditions.
            There has been a good deal of redefining over the last thirty or forty years, a period that coincides with rising inequality and attacks on social insurance programs.

      • Jordan

        Weird anecdotes: I know someone who was persuaded by the “Giving What We Can” campaign to drop out of grad school to attend Harvard Law in order to become a tax lawyer and donate tons of money to charity.

        Even assuming that works and he sticks with it, that is pretty explicitly aimed at avoiding money going to the government in order to divert some smaller portion of it to private charity.

        (I also know a few others who just decided to go work for Wall Street or whatever, but they didn’t seem nearly so iffy).

        • I don’t think many people were convinced by Mitt Romney’s argument that his charitable giving ought to be added to his tax rate to reflect a “true” indication of what he was paying.

          • Jordan

            Well, they shouldn’t be, but that isn’t what I am talking about.

            I’m talking about someone deciding to make their career one where they reduce the tax burden of rich people (or corporations, or whatever) in order to personally make a lot of money, much of which they will donate to charity. Because they view this as an (the?) optimal way for them to make the world a better place.

            • JL

              I’ve met people like that too. Also the variant where they decide that the right way for them to be politically active is to make a bunch of money and use it to influence politicians, since that’s what, according to them, is the most practical form of activism in our system.

              In both cases, I rather feel like they aren’t thinking it through.

              • Jordan

                Yeah. The thing that got my side-eye going in this case was partially his choice of how he planned to make lots of money – helping even richer people avoid taxes – but even without bit that it doesn’t seem like the best plan.

                • JL

                  An awful lot of the things you could do to make piles of money, money at the level that would influence politicians or make you a significant philanthropist, are morally/socially sketchy in some way. I’m certainly willing to acknowledge exceptions, but the assumption of these people that whatever they did to accumulate their wealth would be morally neutral (or at least not-bad enough that any bad would be outweighed by whatever good they did with the money) is pretty dubious.

                • Jordan

                  Yeah, that is absolutely true.

    • Joshua

      Warren Buffett’s Giving Pledge is nice, but it has its limits. Pete Peterson signed on, with his vast wealth going to, of course the Pete Peterson Institute. Everyone here knows what that is – it’s the ground zero think tank for granny starvers. But it counts as part of the Giving Pledge.

      • Tristan

        Does the US not allow overpaying on taxes? I know in Canada you can intentionally pay more than your fair (haha, no, I mean ‘legally mandated’ obviously) share on your returns. There is a reason you can’t do that in the USA? It seems like a pledge to do that would make much more of a political statement.

  • wengler

    I don’t think it would be unreasonable to take away the wealth of the richest Americans every year and make them spin a wheel to see at what level of income they’d live on that year. A few of them could experience the luxurious welfare state they keep deriding.

    • Nobdy

      They would become trapped in the hammock of dependency.

      Remember, kids, making billions so you can and do just live off the interest just spurs you to work harder.

      Getting $300 a month to eat traps you in luxurious dependency.

      Warren Buffet is rich beyond pharoahs, old, lives in a modest home, and wants to give most of his wealth away when he dies. He still works pretty hard. Why isn’t he trapped in a hammock of luxury and not having to work? SHUT UP! STOP TRYING TO MAKE MY BRAIN THINK! WHITE GOOD BLACK BAD. I mean, umm, rich good poor bad!

      • David Hunt

        Four legs good! Two legs better!

      • toberdog

        Also, kids, remember that the estate tax is the DEATH TAX which must be repealed so as to allow the Wal-Mart heirs to become trapped in luxurious dependency.

        Wait, somewhere that went wrong . . .

  • NewishLawyer

    IIRC Clement Attlee started as a standard middle-class solicitor who thought that private charity could help solve poverty. Once he saw this wasn’t true, he converted to socialism and became the architect of British welfare with Nye Bevan.

    • Nobdy

      British names are AMAZING

      • Lee Rudolph

        Have I ever mentioned the British knot-theorist (now transplanted to Kentucky), Morwen Thistlethwaite?

      • Agreed.


      • James Gary

        It is completely OT and I doubt anyone will read this far down the thread, but when I first watched “Fawlty Towers” I assumed that “Prunella Scales” had to be a pseudonym used for tax- or union-related reasons (a la “Alan Smithee.”)

        Nope. It was the actress’s real name. To this day, I cannot begin to imagine what her parents were thinking.

        • Pseudonym

          That sounds like something that would cover the skin of an armadillo.

      • ajay

        British names are AMAZING

        Trust me, the feeling’s mutual. I have been following US politics for many years now and I still have a sneaking suspicion that the purported existence of someone called “Newt Gingrich” is some sort of elaborate in-joke that you’re all playing. See also “Arlen Specter”, “Lauch Faircloth”, “Tom Delay”, “Butch Otter” etc. These aren’t real people, they’re Dickens characters.

        • Walt

          They really are. It must be that a really ridiculous name helps you in politics. If Paul Ryan really wanted to be President he would change his name to “Uriah Heep”.

          • ajay

            They really are. It must be that a really ridiculous name helps you in politics.

            But that’s not it, though. I could understand if it were just a question of Americans liking silly names, and so if you wanted to get to the top you couldn’t be “William Howard” or “Maria Costello”, you had to be “Bassinet Helmcleaver” or “Trombone McOrangutan”.

            But all your presidents have fairly believable names like “George Bush” and “Barack Obama” and “Bill Clinton”. None of them sound made up. It’s just when you look a bit further down the pile that you run into the improbable ones, which gives the impression that they’re being digitally inserted by C-Span as comic relief.

            • Pseudonym

              Dwight Eisenhower? Herbert Hoover? Calvin Coolidge? Chester Arthur? Millard Fillmore? Woodrow Wilson? Harry Truman?

        • There was that beautiful period where the two party leaders in the Senate were Harry Reid and Dick Armey.

        • Origami Isopod

          Ed Balls.

          Shut up.

    • Murc

      Attlee is seriously underrated as both a politician and a policymaker, largely because he is eclipsed by Winston Churchill. The parts of the Unity coalition government run by the Labour party were given all the unsexy scut work to do during the way (someone had to continue to operate domestic programs, after all) and they not only persevered, but excelled at it.

      And then Attlee managed to kick the shit out of the Conservatives in the immediate postwar election, which shocked the shit out of everyone. The cherry on top was establishing the British welfare state, which despite the ongoing (and increasingly successful) attempts of the Conservatives to demolish it over the past seventy years has been responsible for the health and prosperity of millions upon millions of people in the UK.

      Dude is a genuine hero, and in a just world there’d be as many hagiographies of him as there are of Churchill.

      • LeeEsq

        Attlee suffers from not having a colorful personality or a quick wit. If you want to ingrain yourself in the popular imagination a colorful personality really helps.

        • Jordan

          Well, Attlee suffers from that AND not being one of those people who everyone attributes fake quotes to.

        • ajay

          Attlee suffers from not having a colorful personality or a quick wit.

          Though he did write the following limerick about himself:

          Few thought he was even a starter
          There were many who thought themselves smarter
          But he finished PM
          CH and OM
          A Peer and a Knight of the Garter.

          (PM =Prime Minister; Companion of Honour, Order of Merit and Knight of the Garter are all extremely high civil decorations, recognising achievement in civil life or service to the nation).

      • Walt

        I like to pretend that he is justly famous in the UK, and that it’s just the US that’s Churchill crazy.

  • If I recall correctly, by 1932 the private charities were pretty close to the breaking point.

    • They were totally overwhelmed and told Hoover and Republicans that they couldn’t do what government was asking. There’s a reason so many Republicans became ex-Republicans in 1932.

    • Ken

      Oh, well, reality. If you’re going to let that influence your attitude, you need to stay out of politics. Next you’ll be claiming that $13,200 is more than $11,952.

  • JL

    If conservatives want voluntarism to replace a state social safety net, let them build institutions that are capable of it and will render the state social safety net obsolete through their superiority, dual-power-style. What’s that you say? They haven’t done that? Almost none of them are even trying to do that (donating to your church is not the same as building up a mutual aid society that can provide social insurance at government-like levels to all people regardless of religion)? Then they can stop blathering about this until they walk the walk.

    • JustRuss

      Clearly, we just haven’t cut taxes of the 1% enough to truly unleash their charitable powers.

      On a serious note, I wonder if anyone’s done a study of how the Bush or Reagan tax cuts affected charitable donations. The implications could be interesting.

      • JL

        Shit, they don’t even have to give money, though it would be nice if they put their money with their mouth is. They could build the institutions (or try, anyway) by doing the actual volunteer work that they’re claiming is the solution to everything. I’d bet money that I do more volunteer work than the vast majority of conservatives.

        That said, I’m fundraising for two charities right now, and if they want to give me their damn money that sounds good to me, but given that the two charities are a rape crisis center and an abortion fund most of them probably aren’t interested.

  • Anonemoose

    Please, what would those selfish, nasty fuckers hand out if it were up to them? Bootstraps, maybe. Or advice to get a job. Certainly they’d pass along an STD or two.

    And they’d want a tax credit for it.

    • Nobdy

      Pull yourself up with your OWN bootstraps not welfare bootstraps that should belong to ME you goddamned vagrant!

  • Joshua

    I’ve said it before, but is there a single shitty Republican idea we haven’t tried that we changed only because it was an unmitigated disaster? These losers thrive on short term memories and individualistic, unproven nonsense (currently, it’s the myth of the “good guy with a gun”).

    • We’re supposed to pretend:

      a) It wasn’t a Republican idea. (Blame may be placed directly on a Democrat, or on a super secret stealth liberal RINO like Gee Dubya Bush).

      b) If there is absolutely no way to deny it was a Republican idea, any criticism is a viscous violent attack that is worse than 150 gigaholocausts.

      c) The idea is a great idea but we need more deregulation/tax breaks for the wealthy/restrictions on abortion/religion/some other offense to human dignity for it to work.

      d) We can’t wait to tuck into the poo-poo pate on the latest shit sandwich. Mmm-mm!

  • An excellent piece by Mike Konczal. I’m actually going to start a new research project aimed precisely at this era and this topic – studying how the Tammany Society of New York, a political organization supposedly organized to speak for the working class but also fiercely committed to laissez-faire, grappled with the question of mass unemployment in the 1870s, 1890s, and 1930s.

  • cpinva

    “Really, the Hooverism of Paul Ryan and other Republican granny starvers isn’t just wanting to destroy the federal welfare state, it’s also that they, like Hoover, hold onto myths of an individualistic past that never existed.”

    these are the same people who perpetuate the myth of everyone carrying a gun around with them, “in the old days”. of course they didn’t, but the truth be a harsh mistress! not to mention, bad for gun sales.

    • cpinva

      hmmmmm, not sure how that happened, that second paragraph wasn’t intended to be italicized.

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