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Book Review: The Corrosion of Charity

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The Corrosion of Charity
by Robert Whelan (London: Institute of Economic Affairs, 1996); 116 pages; £7.00.

When the first suggestions were made for “downsizing” federal welfare spending after the 1994 Congressional elections, it was not surprising that various special-interest groups that either receive welfare payments in one form or another or that serve as the administrative or bureaucratic conduits for dispersing welfare funds opposed such proposals.

But what was surprising was the criticism immediately heard from many Christian church groups. They declared that if federal welfare spending was reduced (or if the projected rates of increase were cut back), the burden for picking up the slack would fall on the shoulders of churches and their charitable associations. They insisted that they had neither the resources nor ability to do the job. Either the government performed its welfare redistributive duty in society or the poor and needy would fall into even greater poverty, with no private, voluntary group in society able to lift them up.

How very different was the attitude of Christian church groups in the 19th century! A mere hundred years ago, the very notion that “good works” for the glory of God and for the spreading of the Christian faith should be left to the state would have been strongly opposed.

For several years, the Institute of Economic Affairs in London, England, has been sponsoring a series of monographs and books on the social and moral effects of welfare statism on modern society. David Green, director of the IEA’s Health and Welfare Unit, in Reinventing Civil Society (see the review in the May 1994 issue of Freedom Daily) has retold the story of how the private sector in the 19th century provided many of the insurance activities presumed now to require state control. And in his more recent book, Community without Politics (see the review in the April 1996 issue of Freedom Daily, ) Mr. Green explained the moral principles underlying individual liberty and the free society that must be revived if freedom is to be successfully restored.

Now Robert Whelan, Mr. Green’s assistant director at the IEA, reminds us of the nearly forgotten history of voluntary Christian philanthropy in 19th-century Great Britain in his book The Corrosion of Charity. For the 300 years between 1600 and 1900, British society generally took it as axiomatic that charitable work was the responsibility of individual and private corporate effort. Even the notorious English Poor Laws that generated so many negative side effects were considered to be a narrow and limited supplement to the primary activities of the private sector.

British private philanthropy reached its zenith in the 19th century, and Mr. Whelan suggests that this was not an accident. During this epoch of classical liberalism, the state was not regarded as either the proper or most efficient vehicle for the amelioration of poverty. Especially for the Christian classical liberal, his faith required him to take on the personal responsibility for the saving of souls for God.

Most of the Christians in 19th-century Britain also believed that to help a man in his rebirth in Christ, it was essential to help him improve his earthly life, as well. Soup kitchens for the hungry, shelters for the homeless, training of the unskilled for gainful employment, care for the abandoned or poverty-stricken young, and the nurturing of a sense of self-respect and self-responsibility for an independent and self-supporting life were all seen as complements to the primary task of winning sinners over for salvation.

By the 1890s, Mr. Whelan shows, most middle-class British families devoted 10 percent of their income for charitable works — an outlay from average family income second only to expenditures on food. Total voluntary giving in Britain was greater than the entire budgets of several European governments, and more than half a million women worked as full-time volunteers for various charitable organizations.

Individuals of position, wealth, or vision felt it their Christian duty to take up the saving of souls and the caring for these people’s material circumstances as steppingstones to the “remaking” of Christ’s children. Mr. Whelan recounts the stories of some of these people, such as Anthony Ashley-Cooper, the seventh Earl of Shaftsbury, who was “considered the leading evangelical Christian . . . a sort of conscience of the nation, a man of such outstanding virtue that the association of his name with any enterprise gave it instant respectability and mass appeal.” Thomas Barnardo, associated with the Church of Ireland, founded his own charitable organizations that came to care for, house, and educate tens of thousands of children in the poorest circumstances throughout England. William Booth created the Salvation Army, saving souls as well as teaching those who came to Christ through his organization the importance of self-responsibility and paying their own way through work and honesty in all avenues of life. William Cadbury (of Cadbury chocolates) and William Lever (of Lever Brothers’ soap) created, with their own money, model workplaces and communities for their workers.

An advantage of this world of private charity, Mr. Whelan argues, is that it enabled innovation and experimentation to discover the means most likely to bring people to God and improve their earthly conditions. At the same time, the competition among charities for voluntary contributions rewarded those organizations that demonstrated the effectiveness of the methods they used and weeded out the less successful ones.

At the turn of the century, however, a sea change began to occur in the philosophy and ideology of many charities and their corporate sponsors. In a period experiencing the rise of socialist ideas, the view developed that government needed to assist or supplant the efforts of private individuals and organizations. And among a growing number of Christian groups concern for earthly improvement of the poor began to take first place over the previously primary task of saving souls.

As the government began to create the welfare state, many of the private charities found it increasingly impossible to compete with the “free” services supplied by the state. And, at the same time, many people now paying higher taxes to finance government welfare programs came to believe they had paid their “fair share” through taxation, so private giving was either not needed or no longer affordable.

Also, as the 20th century has progressed, many private charitable organizations have themselves become dependent upon government funding for large fractions of their activities. This has resulted in increasing government regulation and supervision of their programs. Furthermore, since “he who pays the piper calls the tune,” Christian charities have had to diminish or remove the evangelical element in their activities under government rules against religious proselytizing by those receiving government funds.

The importance of Mr. Whelan’s book is that it clearly dispels the myth that the free society would be either uncaring or unresponsive to the deserving poor. And it reminds us of the moral element in individual conduct that a free society fosters, but which, unfortunately, can too easily be undermined once the state steps in where it should not tread.

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    Richard M. Ebeling is a professor of economics at Northwood University. He was formerly president of The Foundation for Economic Education (2003–2008), was the Ludwig von Mises Professor of Economics at Hillsdale College (1988–2003) in Hillsdale, Michigan, and served as vice president of academic affairs for The Future of Freedom Foundation (1989–2003).