A Better Way To Help Our Fellow Man

As we enter the Christmas season, the question of our responsibility to our fellow man (and woman) arises. When we see people in need, how do we respond? How should traditional moral values apply in today’s impersonal, global economy? I attended a recent conference on Liberty and Solidarity at the Catholic University of America which suggested three criteria useful in answering these questions: solidarity, subsidiarity and prudence. Solidarity is the moral responsibility to help one’s fellow man. Subsidiarity is the idea that this responsibility should be exercised at the most local level, beginning with oneself, and that one’s moral responsibilities can’t simply be shifted to others. Prudence links the two, holding that one must use one’s knowledge and wisdom to ensure that the likely impact of one’s acts will be positive.

These concepts provide a way of evaluating the various ways of “doing good” in the world and fulfilling one’s moral responsibilities to others. They also suggest a way of resolving the challenge that economist Frederick Hayek raised long ago: How does one achieve for the morality of civilization (the market) the legitimacy long afforded to the morality of the tribe? Markets do much good for many people, but often those benefits are remote and impersonal. Charitable acts in small communities, on the other hand, are direct and observable and thus more easily gain legitimacy. But is direct action the only form of charity? Is it the most effective strategy in today’s modern economy?

To illustrate the discussion, a little shorthand in the form of some moral aphorisms would help. Here’s the first one:

  • I gave a hungry man a fish and that was good.

The virtue of solidarity argues for helping the hungry. And in small tribal societies, everyone knows the hungry man and his plight. The direct, personal relationship between the needy individual and the donor can be witnessed and evaluated readily. The knowledge of the donor about the recipient allows a prudent judgment on the type and quantity of aid likely to help rather than harm. Scaling up this response to the modern global economy, however, is difficult. For example, foreign aid programs that send large shipments of food to poorer nations may weaken or even destroy those nations’ existing food supply system, leaving the populace at risk when the food aid ceases or corruption prevents it from reaching the needy.

Thus, the earlier aphorism is often partnered with another:

  • I taught a hungry man how to fish and that was better.

Here the assistance is also direct and observable, and the giver now is perhaps even more closely involved in the process. The biggest difference is that, in this instance, the gift is not a transient meal but rather a measure of empowerment. Assistance of this type is arguably more respectful of the individual – perhaps even more personal.

But again, this form of charity is difficult to scale up. Poverty is rarely eliminated just by helping people gain a specific skill set. Most real poverty reduction has been achieved by creating conditions in which people have access to better choices and can elect to move from lower-value skills to higher-value skills. Helping people to remain in their current pockets of poverty or to stick with skills that may become obsolete can delay their move to locations and occupations offering far greater prospects.

Thus, market advocates suggest a third option:

  • I worked to remove the obstacles that prevented the individual from becoming a better fisherman – or from acquiring an even more relevant skill.

This form of assistance is based on the premise that only the individual truly knows his own passions, motivations, and skills. This form of charity respects that reality and seeks to empower the individual to achieve his own potential. It recognizes that cultural and legal changes were needed in order to shift from tribal poverty to a modern, prosperous economy. One of the greatest changes, as economic historian Deirdre McCloskey argues, was rhetorical – people of different classes, skills, and religions needed to start talking about the dignity of commercial activities and the market in general. As the bourgeois virtues gained legitimacy, it liberated the entrepreneurial spirit and created our modern world.

For most of history and in many nations today, the path up from poverty has been hindered by an array of cultural and political barriers – licensing requirements, cultural prejudices that bar women and minorities from various occupations, discriminatory tax policies, and good old fashioned corruption. Reformers who fight to remove these barriers are truly charitable, although their actions rarely earn the accolades given to practitioners of the first two strategies. Tribal values were inculcated over many thousands of years, and such rules remain applicable to families, friends and neighbors. But they are far less applicable to a global economy.