At some point in the last 15 years, the meaning of three key terms changed: "need" now means wanting someone else's money; "greed" means wanting to keep your own; and "compassion" is when a politician wants to arrange the transfer. You're actually accused of "lacking compassion" if you object to this kind of redistribution. According to George Gilder's marvelous "Wealth and Poverty," this so-called "compassion" is nothing but a very misleading, pious moral high ground.
One of the chief critiques of capitalism over the years by socialists, liberals, clergymen, and--most notably--the poor has not been of its practical achievements, but rather the perception of its moral character. Most of them have got the idea that the source of wealth comes from sinful, anti-Judeo-Christian avarice. Wealth, they often assert, comes from "taking," and therefore the way to combat poverty is to "take" it back and redistribute it. But as Gilder explains, the essence of capitalism is "giving."
Capitalists "give" of themselves without a predetermined return. That is to say, they make investments without a predetermined return; and a gift is not something given necessarily without any return. It's perfectly consistent with the Bible, in which you often gave alms in the hope of some form of return; perhaps a blessing. It's risking your life to create comething without any assurance of return. (Liberals confuse this with gambling, which is a zero-sum game. That's why it's not "risking." Capitalists are giving of "themselves" without a predetermined return. Not just putting down some money and making no effort and having no moral engagement in the activities they're pursuing. That's the difference between gambling and capitalism.)
Also, the mechanism of the market neutralizes greed because selfish individuals are forced to find ways of servicing the needs of those with whom they wish to exchange. It's true that various people often approach economic exchanges with motives that fall short of the Biblical ideal Gilder discusses here. But no matter how selfish a person's motives may be, as long as the rights of the other parties are protected, the greed of the first individual cannot harm them. As long as greedy individuals are prohibited from introducing force, fraud, and theft into the exchange process, their greed must be channeled into the discovery of products or services for which people are willing to exchange their holdings. Every person in a market economy has to be other-directed.
Unlike socialism, capitalism recognizes several necessary conditions for the kinds of voluntary relationships it recommends. One of these conditions is the existence of inherent human rights, such as the right to make decisions, the right to be free, the right to hold property, and the right to exchange what one owns for something else. And, believe it or not, capitalism also presupposes a system of morality. Capitalism should be thought of as a system of voluntary relationships within a framework of laws which protect people's rights against force, fraud, theft, and violations of contracts. "Thou shalt not steal" and "Thou shalt not lie" are part of the underlying moral constraints of the system. Economic exchanges can hardly be voluntary if one participant is coerced, deceived, defrauded, or robbed. This should be obvious to most people living in America today.
Gilder also explains how capitalism is consistent with the Biblical view of human nature in another way: it recognizes the weaknesses of human nature and the limitations of human knowledge. No one can possibly know enough to manage a complex economy. No one should ever be trusted with this power. However, in order for socialism to work, socialism requires a class of omniscient planners to forecast the future, to set prices and control production. This is what stagnates enterprise in socialist economies. And it's also a good way for an individual to lose their political freedom as well. For what is to be produced does not depend on the demands of consumers, but on the independent decisions of government planners; production, therefore, is more likely to serve the purposes of planners, of the state, than those of a consumer. That's a freedom you sacrifice under socialism. And as the sole producer and employer, the socialist state finds it easy to restrict political freedom that could be used to replace centralized powers. Eventually, you have Noam Chomsky popping up on the Killing Fields trying to tell you that "it's not that bad."
Gilder's frank assessment of how the welfare state has driven husbands from the home--especially black homes--by aiding single mothers is disturbing. The average total relief package for a single mother with three children is more than $19,000 a year--tax free. By comparison, a traditional two-parent family of four with a higher income of say, $22,500, has only about $18,000 left after taxes. Poor women might be poor, but they're not stupid. Niether are poor young men, many of whom quickly realize that by their own efforts and means they are unable to provide as well for their families as Uncle Sam. Too many mothers decide not to marry the fathers of their children; they marry welfare instead. As we enter the 21st century, 70% of black children are born into fatherless homes.
So, in effect, the modern state continually releases us from our duties to our next of kin--our familial duties--at the same time it increases our duties to total strangers, whose lives we wreck when we provide for them (with a little coercion from Uncle Sam, of course) government assistance. Even now as we approach the year 2001, we keep hearing collectivists saying "we have more to do" and "there remains much to be done." It's kind of analogous to Mao's Long March--a Long March to the moon without a bridge, and we just keep walking in circles and we're told both that we're making progress and that we're not making enough progress. This is certified insanity, yet most people fail to see it.
George Gilder's "Wealth and Poverty" is one of the most important books on capitalism and the effects of welfare on its recipients you'll ever buy.