Communism and Charity

I can recall my first introduction to studying communism. I attended a French immersion school and so remember being introduced to L’Union des républiques socialistes soviétiques (URSS) and les plans quinquennaux. In the textbook, there was a political cartoon illustrating the concept of Stalinist Five-Year Plans for the National Economy. If my memory is correct, the image included a man carrying hundreds of sweaters, leaning like the Tower of Pisa in his arms, to the masses who were all barefoot. It was a simple illustration of the failure of central planners to successfully allocate resources given that the relevant knowledge in an economy is dispersed.

Friedrich Hayek argues this case persuasively in his 1945 essay “The Use of Knowledge in Society.” Central planning “according to one unified plan” is not conducive to prosperity. Because of the “rapid adaptation to changes in the particular circumstances of time and place, it would seem to follow that the ultimate decisions must be left to the people who are familiar with these circumstances, who know directly of the relevant changes and of the resources immediately available to meet them.” The price mechanism is marvelous because it serves as “a system of telecommunications which enables individual producers to watch merely the movement of a few pointers, as an engineer might watch the hands of a few dials, in order to adjust their activities to changes of which they may never know more than is reflected in the price movement.”

What I have found to be striking is that even private charity can be communistic when private givers allocate resources completely ignorant of the particular circumstances of the recipients. For example, at Christmastime, homeless persons in my city received an overwhelming amount of cakes, cookies, and pastries. Many of these went to waste because there was a surplus of sweets when what persons were lacking was a healthy meal. Many children gave blankets to the homeless through their schools. “It’s the thought that counts,” some will say. However, for many of the homeless, they have blankets, but need, for example, jackets.

One volunteer at a homeless shelter wrote a blog lamenting the lack of razors and urged citizens to donate this item for the homeless. Generosity abounded and the shelter was flooded with razors. But such needs are ever-changing and the next week some other product was in short supply. And of course, individuals require different items at different times and so flooding a shelter with a particular item is impersonal charity.

At another shelter in town, it came to my attention that local Christian churches donate hundreds of sandwiches for the homeless. There are many immigrants at this shelter and many of these immigrants are Muslims. Christians donate hundreds of ham and cheese sandwiches, but do not realize that these do not get eaten by the Muslims who do not eat pork as a religious dietary restriction. To say, “Beggars cannot be choosers” (as often happens) is disrespectful of the basic human dignity  that truly generous persons should not deny, but rather affirm by their giving.

What is the solution to the sort of charity that is more akin to the communistic, impersonal allocation of resources than to the actions of a Good Samaritan? In the same way that a businessperson responds to the immediate, ever-changing demands of a customer, a good philanthropist will respond to the immediate, ever-changing needs of the poor. Without the price system to communicate what these precise needs are, relationships can be the substitute.

Through developing a personal relationship with someone in need, the civic-minded person will be able to adjust his or her charitable activities to the changing needs. Personal relationships with the poor are also the best way to ensure accountability and to ultimately promote self-reliance instead of dependency. Discover the needs in your community by meeting those who are most familiar to the circumstances. In addition to your charity being more intentional and meaningful, you will also develop friendships. Let’s free private charity from its detached, impersonal, and communistic approach and root our efforts in responding to individual persons rather than centralized charitable efforts. Givers can be choosers.

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