One reason why many private charities are both more efficient and more effective than government welfare programs is because charities in the private sector are accountable to the people who contribute to them. There’s a significant amount of variance in administrative and fund-raising overhead among different charitable organizations. For example, the American Red Cross spends 6 cents out of every dollar contributed for overhead, while the American Cancer Society spends 31 cents out of every dollar for overhead.* Private charitable organizations are required to make this information available to the public. As a private contributor, you can choose the charities to which you contribute, and make sure you get the best return on your investment for whatever causes you support.
The government, on the other hand, does not publish the percentage of money allocated for social welfare programs that goes to bureaucratic overhead. Given the usual proliferation of bureaucracy in government, I’d be willing to bet that the overhead is pretty high. But you have no way to find out. Nor do you have any choice in the matter, even if you knew.
Nevertheless, there are people who, even while acknowledging that government welfare programs are less efficient and less effective than private charities, still believe the government should appropriate their (and everybody else’s) money to pay for them. Why? They believe that the very fact that it’s involuntary is a good thing. There are two reasons people think involuntarism is good.
- They have very little faith in human nature. They believe that they themselves are good, but most other people are not. Consequently, they believe, if the government didn’t force people to support humanitarian causes against their will, they wouldn’t support them at all. What they don’t realize is that empathy is a fundamental aspect of human nature. Empathy is not only the root of conscience, but also of altruism. When we see someone in need, we have an instinctual impulse to help them. However, by delegating that role to the government, we absolve ourselves of the need to take personal responsibility for the welfare of our fellow man. From the perspective of social evolution, that’s not necessarily a good thing.
- They want to feel like humanitarians but, if it were left up to their own discretion, they’re not sure they would be as generous as the government is with their money. It isn’t that they have such great faith in the government, but that they’d rather hand over the responsibility to someone else than to accept that responsibility themselves. Then they can feel good about supporting social welfare without having to make the hard decisions themselves.
Unfortunately, the ultimate result of leaving it up to the government is that less of the money spent to aid those in need actually benefits the people who need it, and more of it gets absorbed into the ever-expanding bureaucracy. Private charities have to compete in the free market, where benefactors vote with their dollars.
* Charity Navigator provides comparative data on charitable organizations, incuding how much they spend on actual program services vs. overhead.