Charity and the Ex Post/Ex Ante Dilemma

We are supposed to help those who are in need. The scriptures seem to be quite clear about this. And that, of course, is the problem. I have phrased the issue in what legal theorists call the ex post perspective. We take need as given and the morally relevant question is what our response to the need should be. Our decision is seen as being an after-the-fact (in this case the fact is need) event. The problem, of course, is that we can also look at our decision from what legal theorists call an ex ante perspective. Rather than seeing it as an after-the-fact event we look at it as a before-the-fact event. The event that our decision is “before” in this case is the reaction of others to that decision. Let me give a concrete example:

Imagine a woman ? a member of the church ? addicted to drugs, who has a young daughter. She has no money because she has spent it on drugs and contacts the ward to ask for cash so that she can buy food. The ward provides her with cash. As a result, she adjusts her spending habits. She take the money and buys drugs instead of food. The ward responds by providing her with food. This still frees up more of her ? very meager ? income to purchase drugs.

Now lest you think this example is overdrawn, I can assure you that it is based on at least two concrete cases that I have personally been involved in. The ex post response to the woman’s need is to provide her with resources. However this response creates ex ante incentives for her future behavior that are not good.

Now before everyone starts quoting King Benjamin and Hugh Nibley at me, I am not arguing that because charity can create bad ex ante incentives we shouldn’t help the poor. I am genuinely puzzled by the ex post-ex ante dilemma. It seems to me that we are frequently (but not always) faced with circumstances where ex post and ex ante perspectives point in different directions. What I want to know is how people deal with this problem ? other than those who suggest that it never really exists, which in my opinion is demonstrably false.

35 comments for “Charity and the Ex Post/Ex Ante Dilemma

  1. Chris R
    March 5, 2004 at 5:55 pm

    I think you question is answered by the question posed by Linda iin the previous thread. Is the common person good or evil? I tend to think that people on this earth are naturally caring and virtuous.

    But, this idea of what type of character the normal person is lies at the heart of all conceptions of society and what our relation to others are. For me, the worst thing to do it to stop trying to help, or to stop caring about our neighbors. Then, we fall short of our potential.

  2. March 5, 2004 at 5:57 pm

    Personally I’ve given welfare supplies in very similar ways. Its deeply disturbing and tended to make me very cynical. I had a roommate in Provo who never went to church, broke most of the commandments, and then got mad because the Bishop wanted to tie welfare aid to his getting reactivated. It made me even more cynical.

    The issue to me is what brings about the best results. If our giving doesn’t improve things then I don’t think we ought to do it. I think of some of the aid we sent to Ethiopia and Somalia which became yet an other tool of war and didn’t help the situation.

    This has nothing to do with Benjamin’s criticism in Mos 4 which seems tied to *deserving*. i.e. we don’t help those who brought it on themselves. Rather it has everything to do with making help actually help a person.

    Now in my old cynical age, I suspect I’d have reacted to the woman drug user by calling social services (or threaten it) as I simply don’t think a child ought to be in that situation.

  3. Grasshopper
    March 5, 2004 at 6:25 pm

    Okay, so what if it isn’t drugs, but (as in the case of a family I have worked with) wasteful spending on name-brand clothing, too-frequent fast food, expensive toys for the children, etc. instead of necessities?

  4. March 5, 2004 at 6:43 pm

    I think that such church welfare ought to be tied to serious discussions about their financial planning. Like you I’ve met many who have more than enough for their needs but end up wasting it. I personally would feel awkward about giving them welfare. Good thing I’m not a Bishop I suppose. I’d hope that if I’m ever misfortunate enough to be called that the Lord would inspire me what to do. It really is a catch-22 in which no matter what the children suffer because of irresponsible parents.

  5. lyle
    March 5, 2004 at 8:33 pm

    what about drinking? let’s move away from illegal drugs (your example, right nate?) and just go to alcohol. i was devestated to see a newly baptized (within the last year) member drinking a beer the other week…which member is heavily subsidized by the branch…and this guy is a single-dad with about 7 kids! argh…

  6. Christopher
    March 6, 2004 at 7:41 am

    To followup on Clarke and Lyle’s comments. When I was in the YSA Ward, we’d drive the refrigerated truck from the Bishop’s Storehouse to a few Stake Centers scattered around our State. And while making these deliveries, I was amazed by the attitude and behavior of some the people who were the recepients of the Church Welfare. Most of the people seemed to me folks who joined the Church, not because that had prayed, and had accepted the truth about the BOM, and the D&C , the Bible, but because it was another means of getting food and other aid, without having to take the trouble of finding a job, or without having to face the kind of scrutiny that welfare recipients in our State have to, if they are recieving State Aid. I have seen people sitting in their cars, in the Stake Center parking lots, ,sipping from cans of Budweiser(hidden in brown paper bags), seen people that came up to the Church truck totally high and smelling of pot smoke, people smelling of cigarette smoke, etc.
    I made my concerns known to our Church leaders, but, nothing seems to have changed. In the quest to be Christ-like, I think, a lot of un-Mormon behavior and a lot of fraud is tolerated, which , is something I am not comfortable with.
    I think, if I were ever to be called to a position of authority, i would be very compassionate, but also demand that folks recieving aid hold up their part of the bargain, and that t hey make attempts(with our help and support) to get back on their feet.

  7. lyle
    March 6, 2004 at 8:26 am

    to clarify: i’m not saying, or not not saying, that welfare should be yanked from certain recipients. perhaps it is yet another challenge to love those that we are the least sympathetic with?

  8. March 6, 2004 at 10:34 am

    “I think, if I were ever to be called to a position of authority, i would be very compassionate, but also demand that folks recieving aid hold up their part of the bargain, and that t hey make attempts(with our help and support) to get back on their feet.”

    And that is exactly what you are supposed to do as a leader. The system is prone to abuse because abuse is allowed or tolerated. It’s not easy being in the position to tell people that they have to improve their lives, that the church welfare program involves them becoming self-sufficient. I have a problem with the view that charity is just giving food, money or other tangible property to the poor with no expectation that they act responsible for their given situation or try to improve upon it where they can. That’s not charity. Charity lifts people out of their condition and places them in a better place. The scriptures teach that when the Nephites had “all things in common” that there were no poor among them. I take that to mean, in part, that all contributed to the common good. That all worked and labored. Thus, there were no poor because people had overcome or were overcoming their sinful and lazy natures.

  9. March 6, 2004 at 12:35 pm

    The charity might also have the ex ante effect of causing a change of heart. Economists don’t have a monopoloy on ex ante decision-making. ;)

  10. March 6, 2004 at 4:10 pm

    In my opinion, more serious problems occur if addiction is involved. The very nature of addiction make is very hard for bishops to use it as a reason not to help. In my church calling life, I’ve had to try and “help” both smoking and porn addicts. And I was supposed to do this “fairly”. Telling a smoker, “I can’t help you until you stop smoking” isn’t very helpful.

  11. sid
    March 6, 2004 at 5:23 pm

    Bob, i guess, a person in a leadership position could ask and actually demand that person recieving Church aid demonstrate that he or she is actually making a serious effort to overcome their problems. Otherwise it beomes a situation of a few undeserving people of questionable character and questionable commitment to the BOM and the Scriptures and the Church mooching off us all, and that is very unfair to those who choose to do the right thing.

  12. March 6, 2004 at 10:05 pm

    I completely agree that progress needs to be made in order for someone struggling to receive aid. And I’m no one to say what the balance is exactly. I guess I feel that at least the first time you help someone, you give him/her the benefit of the doubt and just help him/her. If he/she comes back for more and hasn’t made any progress, then, oh well, you don’t give to him/her until he/she does make progress. There is the initial loss of the first “help”, but I feel like some Church leaders want someone to pass a temple recommend interview before he/she gets a dime. This is definitely the goal (being temple worthy) but obviously isn’t something that happens over night. I spoke here very generally, and it’s just my take. I think the Church, overall, does very well with welfare.

  13. Matt Evans
    March 7, 2004 at 12:10 am

    This dilemma is one of the chief reasons charity at the personal level is better than at the bureaucratic level. Government agencies just don’t have the time and resources to monitor and adjust government aid based on it’s effect on each recipient. Bishops oversee a much smaller number of people, and can condition aid on things that will help make it temporary.

    My brother-in-law, who is exceptionally frugal and good with money, was called by his Stake President to help people who recieve welfare in their Utah stake to make a budget. His job is to help them add up all of their income and expenses, and let the couple decide how they’ll make the two figures balance. The bishops in the stake condition church assistance on the family’s sticking with their plan. The bishops apparently think it has been very effective, and believe they have largely eliminated what Nate terms the ex-ante problem.

  14. Ben
    March 7, 2004 at 4:25 pm

    Today in Church, a man in shabby jeans and smelling of alcohol tapped me on the shoulder in the few minutes before sacrament meeting started.
    “Who’s the Bishop here?”
    “He’s around here somewhere…”
    “Well, are you a member of this church? Can I talk to you a minute?”

    We moved into a corner. “I need $20 to pay my rent or they’ll kick me out. I got half from the Catholic church down the road. Can you help me out? I really really need it.” His breath was strong.

    “Did you talk to the Bishop?”
    “Yeah, I know him, I’ve talked to him before.”
    “What did he say?”
    “Something about discretionary funds. He wouldn’t help me.”
    “Why not?”
    “I don’t know.”
    “Well, will you be here after the meeting?”
    “No, I gotta go. Can’t you help me out? I really need it.”
    “Hold on.” I went in search of my wife. No luck. I ducked into the bathroom and offered a biased prayer. Walking back into the chapel, I found my wife. She didn’t know what to think. Contrary to normal, I did have a $20 in my pocket. We try not to carry cash here on the south side of Chicago…
    I went back to him.
    “I’m sorry. I prayed, and I just don’t feel good about giving you the money.”
    He looked at me and I walked away, upset with myself, feeling awkward, and upset at him for entering my sanctuary of comfort. He wasn’t there after the meeting, which I spent thinking about King Benjamin, hugh Nibley, and other potential guilt-inducing writings. I thought about things I could have done, like finding out where he lived and paying them directly. Talking to the Bishop and seeing if he knew more. Wondering if my prayer had been sincere, or if I had heard the voice of the spirit or my wallet. And yet… today was fast sunday. We pay our tithes and offerings, generously, I think, given our student budget. We have a regular guy we know by name, on a city work program. We give him a bit every time we see him…
    Was I right or wrong? I can’t know, but my conscience will recover. I *am* thankful for the Bishop who is our mediator with the poor in the ward, who discerns whom should receive our offerings. I hope I never become one… But my wife says I’m still a good person.

  15. ronin
    March 7, 2004 at 5:14 pm

    Ben’s example in t he previous says it all – here is a person, who has chosen to be a drunk, who has come to Church to get the moey he needs. He has no desire to change his ways, or even stay long enough to at least listen to the message of the Sacrament Mtg. I am a bit of an absolutist , and I think, Ben, you were completely right to deny him the $20.00 he asked for. For all you know, he was looking for a handout so that he could go straight to the party store and buy a fifth of liquor. You did the ight thing, and you should not feel guilty. If you had given him the money, all you would have done is contributed to his disipated lifestyle.

  16. March 8, 2004 at 2:12 am

    Nate et al., I see two issues collapsing into one. First issue: how should the Church dispense welfare funds? Second issue: how should we as individuals interact with the poor. At one time, I thought these were the same issue, but now I believe that they are different, at least in some circumstances.

    As to the first, the Church has an institutional responsibility to distribute funds contributed by members in a manner that furthers the growth of the kingdom of God. In my view, this is largely instrumental, requiring a concerted effort to link disbursements to spiritual milestones (most importantly, church attendance). This implies a recognition that the people contributing the funds may have sacrificed mightily to make their contribution. It is also the best hope of resolving the difficult ex ante/ex post problem you describe.

    As to the second, each individual must decide how best to help the poor, but my sense is that giving at this level should be less instrumental. For many years, I have taken the “sanitized” route to helping the poor: make a substantial fast offering and ignore beggars on the street. This strategy was motivated primarily by my desire to maximize the value of my contributions to the poor (and perhaps privately by my desire to avoid contact with people who, to be brutally honest, do not seem like much fun to be around). In my view, the Church welfare system is superior to the ad hoc system of sidewalk donations when it comes to affecting people’s lives. Nevertheless, I recently have begun to rethink this strategy. I am bothered by the fact that I am so far removed from the delivery mechanism. My role under the sanitized strategy is limited to writing a check, and that just feels wrong.

    What is missing is probably not money, but time. Somehow, each of us who is materially blessed should find a way to engage the poor face to face. And not just at Christmas. I still haven’t mastered this, but I want to do better.

  17. discouraged but not distraught
    March 8, 2004 at 1:11 pm

    Perhaps I have grown too cynical, but I have yet to see a workable solution to the problem Nate identifies. The creation of a safety net (i.e., church welfare) inevitably causes some people to act in a way where it is more likely that they will need the safety net. Nate’s examples are extreme cases (as are some of the other stories mentioned), but the problem extends much further than that. In fact, I think that ex ante incentives have been at work, to one degree or another, in the majority of welfare cases I have seen. I can’t count the number of times, for example, that people have come asking for a food order while they were paying $50 a month for cable and/or $40 a month for a cell phone.

    It has also been my experience that imposing requirements such church attendance and adherence to a budget does not solve this dilemma, at least not completely. The problem is that these requirements come only after a crisis has arisen. At that point, people are often (though certainly not always) happy to come to church for a couple weeks, or to come up with a budget, in exchange for getting their bills paid. Once they are back on their feet, they frequently engage in the same type of behavior that got them into trouble in the first place, knowing the church will almost certainly bail them out if and when the time comes.

    The problem can be minimized in part by asking the member to provide service in exchange for assistance. But this is not a complete solution either. It would take a significant amount of service to be comparable to an $800 rent bill, or even a $250 utility bill. The ward building simply isn’t that dirty (particularly given that there are often several people needing help at the same time). Unless the value of the service rendered is approximately equivalent to the benefit received (something I have never seen in practice), ex ante incentives remain.

    Despite these problems, I think it is beyond question that the benefits of the church welfare program far outweigh the disadvantages. There is a 60-year old woman in our ward who is raising a teenage grandson (with 100% early morning seminary attendance), helping to keep several of her family members off the streets, and taking care of an incapacitated husband all at the same time. There have been weeks at a time where her family has only had grits to eat—breakfast, lunch, and dinner. She generally does not come to us for help—we have to go to her. For me, having the privilege of helping her more than makes up for the ex ante problem resulting from helping others.

  18. March 8, 2004 at 1:21 pm

    D&D, Agree completely. My view is that most bishops err on the side of compassion. Hard to fault them for that, but I think that being a bit tougher might be better for all.

  19. Nate Oman
    March 8, 2004 at 1:23 pm

    Is imposing conditions of financial assitance inconsistent with the idea of charity? The Good Samaritan knew nothing about the situation of the man on the road to Jerico other than the fact that he was in need. It seems like a pure ex post perspective.

  20. March 8, 2004 at 3:03 pm

    Nate, I think the issue is less how to act when we *don’t* know what happened than when we *do* know. I agree that when ignorant we ought to error on the side of caution and give charity. However most of the examples that make us uncomfortable are those where we know the person has no intention of modifying their self destructive habits. The charity is designed (by them) to simply allow them to continue to engage in such destructive habits.

  21. Kristine
    March 8, 2004 at 3:13 pm

    Why should we get to decide how many times a person is allowed to fail and be picked up by the “safety net”? Doesn’t the seventy times seven rule apply here?

  22. D&D
    March 8, 2004 at 4:05 pm

    Kristine, what to do if one person’s excessive and unjustified use of the “safety net” threatens to jeopardize the very existence of the safety net for all concerned. We are counseled in our stake, for example, to limit the amount of fast offering assistance we provide to the fast offerings made by the members in our ward. The needs of the people (members and non-members combined) living within the geographic boundaries of our ward vastly exceed the available fast offering funds at our disposal by several orders of magnitude. Because resources are finite, it is inevitable that choices have to be made. How should we go about making those choices? Does it not make sense to put limited resources to their best use? Or instead is the Bishop required to expend the limited resources available everytime he is asked? Should he be precluded from considering a person’s prior track record in making this decision?

    To answer your question, “why should we get to decide how many times a person is allowed to fail,” is that we have no viable alternative in a world of scarce resources.

  23. Nate Oman
    March 8, 2004 at 4:23 pm

    Kristine: On the other side of the argument, if your charity facilitates self-destructive behavior, to what extent is it kind to provide it? My other question is to what extent it makes sense (as you implicitly do) to think of charity as a kind of forgiveness. Am I wronged by a person who abuses my charity such that I can fogive them? Or is my unease really about the consequences of my charity in the lives of others, namely my fear that through an excess of kindness I am wronging them?

    If the argument is couched in terms of the second question rather than the first, then it doesn’t seem that the seventy times seven principle is applicable. What we really need is either: (1) Concrete advice about putting together workable forms of charity; or, (2) Some moral argument that explains why I am not responsible for the evil that I may assist through my charity.

    It is precisely our inability to dismiss the problem with easy who-am-I-to-judge generousity or beady-eyed they-created-their-own-problem indifference that makes the problem so interesting. And difficult.

  24. March 8, 2004 at 4:24 pm

    I don’t think the issue is the size of the ward safety net. Not to say that doesn’t count in many areas of limited resources. There clearly the more obedient members will be served first. But to me that’s not really the underlying issue. Much like the prior discussion of charity, to me the real issue is knowing how to be charitable.

    Is giving to people really charity if it doesn’t make them better – especially in the long term. For a drug addict is paying their rent really charity if it prevents them from recognizing the effects their actions are having? I can see this in my own immediate circle of friends. One of my best friends from a couple of years ago became addicted to pain killers and pretty well screwed up his life. His parents let him stay at his house and a few other friends drive him around (he lost his license and car due to DUI). All this has done though is let him retain his drug habit because consequences haven’t been harsh enough so as to make him want to change. (This despite losing a fantastic girlfriend, many friends, having no job, and ODing once) Is this really charity if it keeps him in his state? Will years from now he thank them for prolonging this period of his life?

    I think the same thing holds true in church welfare. We need to ask what effects our gifts are offering.

    As I said, this gets *very* difficult when children are involved. An easy judgment of cutting someone off because terribly hard to make when a child is being supported by the parent. I recall babysitting for a woman who was making $70,000 a year stripping, had a horrible drug habit, and spent money like it was going out of style. She constantly received charity from neighbors and aquaintances despite her irresponsibility. The child I truly felt for. Numerous men coming in and out of his life, often not having his needs met, and so forth. Were those of us who were trying to be Christlike helping or hurting? (After that experience I refused to help anymore – it just almost seemed like I was contributing to the child’s suffering by helping her)

  25. Kristine
    March 10, 2004 at 8:44 am

    Nate, I think worrying about the evil you may enable by your charity is probably a little overwrought. I doubt that any drug addict goes through a thought process like this–well, if I buy drugs, I won’t be able to pay rent, so I guess I won’t buy any today; no, wait a minute! I can get the bishop to pay my rent, so I can buy the drugs after all, yippee!–before shooting up. Most (all?) self-destructive actions are taken despite an individual’s rational recognition of the harm they are doing themselves and others. Concluding that charity enables their behavior requires assigning a rationality to their actions that does not obtain.

    I do think some people try to game the system, but it’s fewer than we’d think. Also, I think the “tough love” approach Clark seems to be advocating rarely works. Most people change because they finally get effective help, not because they are abandoned. It may be that we are too frustrated to watch them self-destruct anymore, and that for our own sake we need to disengage from the situation, but I think (much of the time) we’re kidding ourselves if we think that our refusal to help is for the sake of being “truly” kind.

    The forgiveness analogy is not mine; King Benjamin suggests it–if we expect God to forgive us as often as we sin, then we are in the same boat as people who require our charity. As far as I can tell, God doesn’t ever say “well, obviously, forgiving you for that sin last time just encouraged you to do it again, so I’m not going to forgive you this time.” Mercy is to be extended as often as necessary.

    Limited ward resources? I don’t buy it (not in N. America, at least). Most of us don’t begin to give half of what we could. There just aren’t many good excuses for having poor among us.

  26. March 10, 2004 at 9:01 am

    I agree, Kristine, that we could give a lot more of our time, talents and resources to reduce poverty, but we will not eliminate it under our present conditions. Society promotes too much selfishness, greed, etc. and this affects both the poor and the rich. Many poor are poor because they make foolish and selfish decisions that increase their poverty or put them there in the first place. We can do better, but until hearts and minds are changed we will always have poor among us.

  27. Kristine
    March 10, 2004 at 9:17 am

    Brent, it’s true that poor people often make selfish or foolish decisions, but so do I (every day, usually 10 times before breakfast). It’s largely a matter of luck that my foolishness and selfishness doesn’t happen to have the consequence of making me poor. I get nervous when we start to talk about poor people as though they are radically different than ourselves, that their choices are somehow so much worse than ours. Is it really that much worse to spend your last two dollars on a lottery ticket instead of a loaf of bread than it is to contribute handsomely to your 401(k) and skimpily to your fast offering? Both choices are stupid, but one has more immediate consequences. It’s a mistake (which we very frequently make) to see the consequences as directly correlated to the degree of stupidity or selfishness of the choice.

  28. March 10, 2004 at 10:59 am

    Again, I don’t disagree, generally, with what you are saying. My point is that until such time as we all, (rich, middle class, and poor) more actively seek to know and do the will of God, we will not eliminate poverty. We have more than sufficient resources, but our greatest resource remains untapped–that of the power that comes as a person seeks to live righteously. Forced or even voluntary redistribution of wealth is not the answer, as resources simply get squandered. We have to change hearts and minds. I think it was President Benson who said we should not be about the business of taking people out of the gutter (or some similar concept) but rather to take the gutter out of people.

  29. Adam Greenwood
    March 10, 2004 at 11:10 am

    I thought the moral dilemmas here were sounding familiar. I just realized that they’re similar to the dilemmas of hostage-taking, kidnapping, and terrorism. Credible threats are made against innocent parties that we care for. In this case, the children. The threats are credible because we know that the person will let the children suffer. The threats are also credible because we know that taking the child away is a hardly-preferable trip through hell. So do we encourage evil to do good? What a choice.

    Why do the innocent have to suffer?

  30. Kristine
    March 10, 2004 at 11:11 am

    I thought it was Kimball and slums, but same idea :)

    I guess we can tell a thread has been followed to the absolute end when the two of us end up agreeing! The Brent-Kristine Convergence Rule (to be invoked after the Goble-Reduced-to-Arguing-from-Anecdotes Axiom)

  31. Steve Evans
    March 10, 2004 at 11:20 am


    The actual quote is “The Lord works from the inside out. The world works from the outside in. The world would take people out of the slums. Christ takes the slums out of people, and then they take themselves out of the slums. The world would mold men by changing their environment. Christ changes men, who then change their environment. The world would shape human behavior, but Christ can change human nature.”

    It may be a mistake to interpret that as “we should not be about the business of taking people out of the gutter.” I think it’s our responsibility to help lead them to Christ, yes, who will work a change in their hearts, but I still feel it’s shameful to refuse a dime to a beggar under the pretense that he’d just go spend it foolishly. I agree with Kristine that it’s too easy to hide greediness behind a veil of righteous intentions.

    As for redistributions of wealth not being the answer to poverty, you’re right — changed hearts and minds are the answer. But I think a redistribution of wealth is certainly the means to resolving poverty — if no wealth is redistributed, wouldn’t that mean that the rich remain rich, and the poor remain poor? Not to advocate socialism; but unless your only answer to poverty is for poor people to start feeling better about being poor and remaining so, there’s got to be some wealth flowing down.

  32. Matt Evans
    March 10, 2004 at 11:21 am

    Kristine, I believe we are all expected to do far more for our neighbors than we are doing, and that we do not live the commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves if we aren’t as concerned for their welfare as we are for our own. (See this thread for a LONG discussion of my views: )

    Yet I think you’ve dismissed the rationality of welfare recipients to easily. You don’t have to know the economic term to realize that money is fungible. Very, very few welfare recipients aren’t smart enough to know that when I give them money for X, that allows them to spend the money they were going to spend on X on Y instead. And even for the few who don’t know that, it’s still true that they will have more dollars in their pocket when they go into the liquor store if I paid their rent. I don’t think we should ever *abandon* someone, but we should definitely consider the *kinds* of support we give them. In many cases true love for the person’s growth requires that we not give them what they want, that we withhold financial support, or refuse to subsidize their self-destructive habits. (We must be certain that this is not a pretext for keeping the money ourselves — one way would be to earmark the money for another beneficiary.) In any event, there is never excuse to abandon someone, only reason to change the means or forms of assistance.

    As for limited ward resources, yes, our ward pays a finite amount of fast offering dollars. You and I may lament the fact that our members aren’t more generous, but that lament doesn’t change the fact that our ward members’ requests for assistance are much greater than our ward’s fast offering contributions. Given the resources at our bishop’s disposal, it is necessary for him to consider which needs are more important; which recipients are more deserving; which forms of assistance more in harmony with the person’s growth.

  33. March 10, 2004 at 11:40 am

    Kristine: Overought in what sense? Are you saying that it is not a real issue; or, are you saying that people who think about it are simply using it as a mask for their deficient charity and virtue? Some other meaning? I am confused. This seems like either a rather vacuous dismissal or a rather gratuitious ad hominem.

    You write, “I do think some people try to game the system, but it’s fewer than we’d think.”

    This may well be true. However, I didn’t make any claims about how many people are “gaming the system.” (Furthermore your assertion is not data.) One doesn’t need to think that the problem is universal in order to think that it is both (1) real; and, (2) worth thinking about rather than dismissing.

    While it is no doubt true that lots of folks engaged in self-destructive behavior are not thinking out long term consequences, I think that you too easily pooh-pooh the idea that people don’t respond to incentives. Indeed, if we think that people engage in self-destructive bahavior with indifference to the long term consequences, then shouldn’t we expect that the lure of the self-destructive behavior is so powerful that they respond to circumstances in ways that allow them to maximize that behavior? As you will notice from my example, no bread was baught before or after the infusion of cash. If anything, it seems that your view of self-destructive individuals as by and large incapable of — or unwilling to engage in — simple ends-means rationality suggests that you are falling into the mistake of viewing them as “radically different than the rest of us.”

    You write, “As far as I can tell, God doesn’t ever say “well, obviously, forgiving you for that sin last time just encouraged you to do it again, so I’m not going to forgive you this time.” Mercy is to be extended as often as necessary.”

    No doubt. On the other hand God says,

    “And surely every man mus rependt or suffer, for I, God, am endless. Wherefore I revoke not the judgments which I shall pass, but woes shall go forth, weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth, yeat, to those who are found on my lef hand. nevertheless, it is not written that there whsll be no end to this torment…” (D&C 19:4-6) Sounds like calibrating the incentives to me… ;->

    Final point, you write, “Brent, it’s true that poor people often make selfish or foolish decisions, but so do I (every day, usually 10 times before breakfast). It’s largely a matter of luck that my foolishness and selfishness doesn’t happen to have the consequence of making me poor.”

    Is it? One needn’t believe in the virtue of the wealthy or the wickedness of the poor to believe that the distribution of wealth is neither entirely random nor entirely exogenous to behavior. Luck egalatarianism is a nice strategy for dealing with middle class liberal guilt, but I am not sure that it is an entirely adequate economic theory.

  34. March 10, 2004 at 1:04 pm

    Steve, I was just butchering the quote. Obviously, in the course of changing hearts we do try to lift up “the hands that hang down and strengthen the feeble knees” (i.e. help people out of the slums). A voluntary redistribution of wealth is great, but I submit it will not eliminate poverty. One of my colleagues is convinced that if Congress really wanted to eliminate financial dynasties, which is a stated purpose of the estate tax, then they would impose a no trust rule. In two or three generations most family wealth would be obliterated through waste and greed. As Matt points out, just giving the needy money doesn’t really solve their problems. Again, I am not advocating not giving fast offerings or anything of the sort (although I have significant issues with our nation’s socialistic welfare programs), but rather am addressing the issue of what it will really take to eliminate poverty. Redistribution of wealth, by itself will never work.

  35. Steve Evans
    March 10, 2004 at 1:08 pm

    Brent: “Redistribution of wealth, by itself will never work.”

    On that point I think we’re all agreed. The big question is whether any redistribution of wealth, on a personal or governmental scale, is desirable, even though it’s not enough to solve the problem of poverty. On that issue, reasonable people, and reasonable mormons, can differ. Since you have issues with U.S. welfare programs as it is, I can probably guess where you’d come out on that one.

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