It is a common charge that classical economists, and more or less individualist or right leaning politicians think the worst of human behaviour, and that left-leaning, more or less collectivist or socialist politicians have more faith in human nature's fundamental benevolence.But this cannot be true, indeed on the evidence it must be the other way around. For it is the left that believes that charity cannot be left to private kindness and must instead be institutionalised within the activities of government; while the right, broadly speaking, believes that much less need be done by government because individuals will, from whatever motive, willingly give up some part of their wealth to fund others or fund activities that benefit others.
Everything in our cultural record and in our own experience tells us that human beings are spontaneously charitable. They need no prompting to help others, they need no help from religion or from any other source. Indeed, all such sources are reflections, sometimes distorted images of the charitable manifestations in the contemporary population, though they track inclinations that are both antique and profound. As it happens there is little variation in these manifestations over time, and even less in what we can discern of their drive.
Real though they are, such donations of resources are limited by our sense of duty towards our own families, and our own interests, which for those that have families are closely bound together. This sense of graded philanthropy is enormously powerful, though frequently discouraged by centralised authority and its supporting religions, which aim to strengthen the individual's sense of obligation towards persons outside the family range, and to do so at the expense of the family, which is otherwise a disruptive and centripetal force. No wonder that Christianity, with its curious and little regarded injunction to love thy neighbour as yourself, has been popular with authority throughout Europe.
The strength of family feeling needs no external support; it is invariable and reborn with every generation; but the extent to which it limits external charity depends on the available resources. In good times we can afford to be generous to those well beyond the family circle; in hard times we may struggle to feed our own.
Even in good times, our kindness, by which we mean actions similar to those proper to our own kind, our relations, but extended for some reason to others, will be limited by a sense of what we can afford to give without reducing our ability to provide for our family and others, including potential objects of our charity in the future. Our sense of what is reasonable to give in any circumstance is very firmly calibrated against our experience and knowledge of what present circumstances indicate about those likely to obtain in the future. In other words, in an undistorted situation our charity will always tend to the optimal level, and be as great as is compatible with duty to one's own dependents and our ability to provide for them in the future. At the societal level of aggregation, at the level of the overall economy, this will manifest itself as altruism that tends not to exceed the long term prospects of the economy.
In both cases it will be seen that the cumulative charity over time is optimised, that is to say a person who does not harm his own interests can continue his charity and does not become a need case himself. An economy that does harm its long term prospects can continue its social policies, rather than being obliged by sheer necessity to rein them in for lack of resources.
We are, as individuals, as kind as we can be. Or at least we would be if taxation did not compel us, on the spurious grounds that we are intrinsically uncharitable, to give more than we can actually afford in any given situation. That is, we are compelled to harm the interests of our families, to impair our own capacity for self-support. At the macroscopic level, the economy is obliged to harm its long term prospects to serve short term charitable objectives; in other words, that resources that should be redeployed as capital and capital maintenance are consumed in charitable dispensation.
In both cases the coerced and imprudent charity results in an increase in short term spending at the expense of total charitable giving over the long term. Charity is no longer optimised; it is reduced in the medium and longer term.
The motivation behind this terrible error is opaque, and while it is tempting to attribute it to self-serving state employees and politicians, I suspect that the practical effects of the policy are in truth attractive to the wider democracy for reasons that I have discussed in an earlier comment on envy ("Give and Take"); namely, that the population-wide taxation required to support state charity is itself the attraction, because it reduces wealth differentials that we perceive, perhaps correctly, as threatening our own long term reproductive success. Thus, charity is indeed the victim of selfishness, though not in the way that we might have imagined. Voluntary and long term charity is replaced by a coerced form that is inferior in quality and unsustainable over the longer term; and we do this because the sequestration of wealth that funds the activity produces a levelling effect that is agreeable to our sense of personal advantage.