Sunday, February 7, 2010

Solidarity v Charity

You don't have to spend long in Europe before even supposedly right-wing politicians begin espousing 'solidarity' as the basis for the policies they propose.  Solidarity is a concept grounded in socialist philosophy, and as far as I can see boils down to two components, one social and one economic.

Social solidarity is relatively benign, and stems from the recognition that we all share a common society.  We all have certain responsibilities with respect to our neighbours and our living environment (which is a common good).   To me this is about being courteous with other drivers, chipping in to help after a natural disaster, packing up rubbish when you go to the park etc.  All good stuff.

It's economic solidarity that bugs me.  Here the idea is to break down class structures by taking wealth from the rich and successful (in the form of taxes and levies) and redistributing it (in the form of welfare benefits).  The purpose is apparently to break down existing power structures and produce a more 'just' society.

There are a number of problems with this idea:

  1. There isn't necessarily anything wrong with the existing power structure, and accordingly it may not need to be broken down.  People can be rich and successful due to hard work, innovation and efficient use of resources; if this is the case then it probably makes sense that they continue controlling the resources.
  2. There isn't really any purpose to the redistribution - the recipients of the benefits may or may not have need of them.
  3. The redistribution process is often heartless, machinistic and bureaucratic.
  4. The society that results isn't a just one - justice would see labour and initiative rewarded, not punished
You could even view economic solidarity as a form of legalised theft, in which a larger group (left-wing voters) steals from a smaller one (right wing voters).  The fact that it happens within the bounds of law and a democratic system doesn't make it right.

An alternative to solidarity is charity.  Charity is people with resources having compassion for those without, and willingly deciding to share.  Because it is grounded in compassion, I see charity as superior to solidarity (which is grounded in envy).  Of course it does have some downsides:

  1. It can be a bit haphazard, e.g. when giving to highly televised causes prevails over giving to the most worthy ones.  This can of course be mitigated by coordination between charitable organisations.
  2. Socialists complain that charity is patronising, the undeserving rich condescending to the noble poor.  I would counter that receiving a universal benefit I don't need and haven't asked for is just as patronising.
You could argue that welfare capitalism is based on charity.  Here, the right-wing voters that I referred to above agree to pay taxes to fund benefits to the truly needy.  They do this out of a number of motivations - compassion, social-cohesion, PR etc - but at the end of the day their contribution is willing, not forced.


The bottom line is that neither charity or solidarity is an end in itself.  Both paradigms are just means to a particular end.  And that is why solidarity in particular is so insidious.  European politicians believe it to be axiomatic truth that solidarity is something to be sought after.  It's not even questionable or debateable in polite society.

The fact is, however, that anyone proposing solidarity as an argument for a new scheme to lighten your pockets probably doesn't have any underlying arguments.  They may not even have got as far as thinking what they're going to do with the money they have collected, or in particular why a universal benefit would be superior to a targeted one in the given case.

And that's why I have little time for the 'social' policies of the Communist Party, United Moldova and the Democratic Party, which rely on the idea of solidarity.  I'm convinced that any future left-wing government in Moldova would over-tax the economy and then fritter away the funds in various peculiar ways.

I'm far more comfortable with the targeted charity of Dorin Chirtoaca (e.g. his focussing of limited municipal subsidies on the sectors of Chisinau society that need them most).  Moldova can't afford gold-plated universal benefits (either financially or morally).  Whilst looking after the weakest, the country needs to develop an enterprise mentality in which individuals take responsibility for themselves first and others second.


  1. Wow that's some conservative discourse :) Mr. Bush would love it. Save the economy by more tax cuts.

    Is providing social security a theft too? Or aid to the unemployed? Scolarships to poor students?

    You have to realize that the poorer a nation is, the more sensitive it is to social welfare. That is why in most countries the poorest regions are usually leftist.

    Politicians are just adjusting their message to the context. You won't convince a lot of Moldovans with the free market and the invisible hand, even if these are good ideas.

  2. Corneliu,

    Please read what I wrote a bit more carefully. I didn't mention either the free market or the invisible hand (although I do have views on both). I didn't mention tax cuts (which many Moldovans have already given themselves by under-reporting their income...)

    My basic point (which maybe I didn't put so well) is that, in a poor nation such as Moldova, social security and other economic benefits need to be focussed on those who need them most. A welfare system designed in this way would have the general support of those footing the bill (and may encourage them to pay their taxes).

    You are right in that (in general) Moldovans instinctively find comfort in the ideas of socialism. They've grown up with them, after all. It is understandable that politicians will seek to capitalise on this and brand anything else as 'extremist'.

    But look at the countries that have successfully made the transition from poverty to prosperity - South Korea, Chile, Singapore etc. Each of these countries has a dynamic entrepeneurial economy built on top of a welfare systems consisting of (universal) personal savings accounts couple with (highly targeted) insured benefits. Personal responsibility + charity, in other words.

    The question is, does Moldova want to join them? Is she prepared to make the sacrifices necessary to succeed?

  3. Although this is not directly relevant to this discussion, I think that although South Korea did manage to have a successful transition from poverty to prosperity, its welfare system fails miserably compared to what you would expect. Also, I don't think that taxes taken from more financially "successful" people to be distributed as welfare benefits would be a punishment...