What is the role of charity with respect to society and government?

I had an rather interesting conversation with an acquaintance this weekend about what charities should be used for. There is always discussions about the everyday role of government, but when polititians and other people talk about moving parts of the what government to charities… what exactly does that mean?

His argument was that charities should be used for anything that people want to pool their resources together. That way the government can stay as small as possible because government should be limited to national defense and maintaining law and order. That way he, as an individual, can decide where his dollars and other resources are spent.

He went into the usual diatribe about how government is corrupt and they only thing we can do is starve it of everything that it needs to exist.


My argument was that charities are good for limited single use or limited time efforts so that they can fill a shortcoming of society and/or government while a permanent solution can be found. When used in this way they are effective and efficient when they are kept local and focused.

I argued that never-ending charities tend to become engines of economic extraction that do things that perpetuate their own existence. My (usual) example is the Susan G. Komen Foundation. It's stated goal is bringing awareness about breast cancer. It uses about 25% of it's revenue for screening and treatment and a large amount of resources for fundraising and “education”.

Of course I gave the usual off-hand jokes about the fact that cancer is pretty efficient at what it does and doesn't really need any additional education.

Cancer patients and people who need to be screened really want, and need, a way to vaccinate and cure the disease that doesn't entail poisoning your system (chemotherapy and radiation) to make your body poisonous to the cancer cells.

Most charities are private institutions that strongly resist public auditing of its resources and funding. Governments agencies have (potentially) strong oversight and if fraud is found then people and politicians (by being voted out of office) can be fired. The agencies much more likely to survive scandal than private charities that seem to simply close up shop. BTW… Where does your money go then.

So… If you've made it this far down my little rabbit hole, tell me, what is your opinion?