he role of private charity versus that of state-sponsored social programs remains a hotly contested issue in Right vs. Left politics, with the Right typically favoring a heavy or total reliance upon private charity, and the Left typically calling for a more robust emphasis on state-provided programs. What is often presumed, however, in this political discourse is that Christianity, like conservatism, requires a total reliance on private charity to deliver services to the needy. This could not be more wrong.
The reason the political debate is back in the news is a recent essay in Democracy Journal concerning the conservative premise that voluntary charity could or should supplant state programs aimed at addressing joblessness, illness, accident, and old age. In the article, Mike Konczal labeled such conservative ideation "the voluntarism fantasy," pointing out that in the American context, "complex interaction between public and private social insurance… has always existed in the United States."
As well, Konczal argues, it should. Konczal reasons that, rather than state support for social programs working against the institution and practice of private charity, it provides a better stage for it. Such a minimum guarantee, he writes:
"As Christian theologian and political philosopher Reinhold Niebuhr wrote in his 1932 book Moral Man and Immoral Society, like the noblesse oblige of pre-industrial days, 'philanthropy combines genuine pity with the display of power and that the latter element explains why the privileged are more inclined to be generous than to grant social justice.'"