Most people acknowledge that we all have an obligation to attend to--to help, serve, comfort--those who are poor or suffering. This obligation is an important tenet of most religions and is central to the teachings of Christ. It is mentioned insistently in scripture, including the Old and New Testaments.
The Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas points to our responsibility to "the Other" as the essence of our humanity, and he argues that this is not a responsibility we choose: this "responsibility is incumbent on me" (Ethics and Infinity 96; see also 100-01). It "can not have begun in my commitment, in my decision. The unlimited responsibility in which I find myself comes from the hither side of my freedom, from a 'prior to every memory'" (Otherwise Than Being 10). What makes me human--indeed, what makes me an individual self--is the fact that I am under the obligation to serve "the poor, the stranger, the widow, and the orphan," Levinas's list of those that scripture in particular reminds us we must serve, though (as Levinas notes) all others are in one way or another needy (Totality and Infinity 245; see also 215 and 251).
In the face of every other person, we experience the call to service and responsibility. What I choose is how I respond to this call. According to Levinas, "The will is free to assume this responsibility in whatever sense it likes; it is not free to refuse this responsibility itself; it is not free to ignore the meaningful world into which the face of the Other has introduced it" (218-19). It is impossible for me to be deaf to the call that comes from others--yet I can refuse that call: "the separated being can close itself up in its egoism" and "[shut] itself up against the very appeal that has aroused it, but [the separated being--the self--is] also capable of welcoming this face of infinity [the other person] with all the resources of its egoism" (216).
Scriptures that are particular to Latter-day Saints--the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants--repeatedly emphasize our obligation to those who are poor or suffering. (I'll list some of those scriptural admonitions at the end.)
Yet Latter-day Saints, with the value they place on agency and responsibility, also wonder how or whether this obligation should be in any way enforced by law. Or to put it otherwise, when faced with political questions about the use of public funding to help people who are in need, Latter-day Saints sometimes engage in discussions about whether such use of public funds is appropriate or whether all assistance to those in need should be purely voluntary. If you listen carefully or look for such discussions in print or online, you can find Latter-day Saints arguing both sides of this question.
I'm on the side of using public funds to help those in need, though doing so needs to be done with care--intelligently and pragmatically as well as compassionately. And I don't believe public (meaning governmentally sponsored) efforts can or should take the place of all the voluntary efforts that also do much good. For one thing, neither private, voluntary efforts nor public ones alone are sufficient to take care of pressing needs.
Yet I acknowledge some truth in the contrary point of view. For one thing, if all efforts to help those in need are made as part of institutionalized public programs, the wells of compassion may dry up in us as individuals. We need the face to face experience of concern for specific others and of personal, voluntary sacrifice. We can show compassion indirectly through our contribution to public efforts, but there is something impersonal, even something at times brutal in institutionalized programs, especially when their practices become routine. Our humanity depends most of all on our response to the specific others we encounter each day. Ivan, in Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, struggles with this truth, finding he can love anonymous humanity, while he cannot find it in himself to love his neighbor: "It's just one's neighbors, to my mind, that one cannot love."
Ultimately, what matters most is the state of our hearts. Each of us must learn to love others and must willingly engage in "the experience of active love" (to quote Dostoevsky again). But one expression of that state of our hearts is our ability to come together as communities to help those in need. And the idea that the only kind of help we can give is private and voluntary contradicts both the scriptures and common sense. Our roads, police forces, and many other services are paid for with tax money, which by its nature is not voluntary. Scripture also supports this idea that we may appropriately be required to contribute to the common good. One scripture I’m thinking of is Mosiah 21:17 (in the Book of Mormon), where King Limhi commands his people to contribute to the support of widows and orphans. These were apparently not merely voluntary contributions, but were expected of everyone as part of their community responsibility.
And note that in Limhi's case, members of the community were required to contribute--not just to roads that everybody uses--but specifically to the support of widows and orphans. They were required to do it not as a denial of their agency but as a condition of being part of the community. Certainly, it's better not to be compelled to be humble (or to repent or to be charitable). But living in a community means having to do certain things. If one disagrees with those expectations, there are several alternatives: refusing to fulfill the expected obligations and suffering the consequences (civil disobedience means willingly accepting the consequences for breaking laws one believes to be unjust); moving to a different community; or obeying while trying to change the laws. The LDS Church normally advises this last approach and does not condone refusal to pay income taxes (whether for social programs or for the military).
Meaningful freedom does not mean refusal to be part of any community. Despite the high importance of agency in LDS theology, some Church leaders have pointed out that the scriptures don't ever use the term "free agency"--which might imply absolute freedom, without responsibility or consequences. Rather, the concept (explicitly or by implication) is "moral agency," the fact that, through God's grace and by our very natures, we are always free, whatever the circumstances or constraints, to choose between good and evil, to follow the "better" rather than the worse "angels of our natures." We exercise such agency not as purely isolated individuals, but within a context of obligations and expectations, as members of communities, even very imperfect ones.
Part of the trick is how to do WILLINGLY and from the heart things that (a) we believe to be good and that (b) we are required by law to do--for instance, obeying traffic laws or contributing to the general welfare by paying taxes, including to help those who are suffering or in need. Jesus said that if you're required by a law court to give someone your coat, you should give him your cloak too; and if someone compels you to go a mile, you should go two miles with him. "Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away." Could that mean that the answer to how to be charitable when the law requires us to assist those in need is to meet that requirement and then do EVEN MORE than we're required?
AN APPENDIX OF SCRIPTURAL REFERENCES (from Latter-day Saint scripture):
Mosiah 4:26: . . . for the sake of retaining a remission of your sins from day to day, that ye may walk guiltless before God—I would that ye should impart of your substance to the poor, every man according to that which he hath, such as feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and administering to their relief, both spiritually and temporally, according to their wants.
Doctrine and Covenants 104:18
Therefore, if any man shall take of the abundance which I have made, and impart not his portion, according to the law of my gospel, unto the poor and the needy, he shall, with the wicked, lift up his eyes in hell, being in torment.
D&C 49:20: But it is not given that one man should possess that which is above another, wherefore the world lieth in sin.
D&C 70:14: Nevertheless, in your temporal things you shall be equal, and this not grudgingly, otherwise the abundance of the manifestations of the Spirit shall be withheld.
D&C 78:6: For if ye are not equal in earthly things ye cannot be equal in obtaining heavenly things; . . .
D&C 56:16: Wo unto you rich men, that will not give your substance to the poor, for your riches will canker your souls; and this shall be your lamentation in the day of visitation, and of judgment, and of indignation: The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and my soul is not saved! (See also verses 17-18, which show the dangers of envy, resentment, and greed on the part of the poor: “Wo unto you poor men, whose hearts are not broken, whose spirits are not contrite, and whose bellies are not satisfied, and whose hands are not stayed from laying hold upon other men’s goods, whose eyes are full of greediness, and who will not labor with your own hands! But blessed are the poor who are pure in heart, whose hearts are broken, and whose spirits are contrite, for they shall see the kingdom of God coming in power and great glory unto their deliverance; for the fatness of the earth shall be theirs.”)
2 Nephi 9:30: But wo unto the rich, who are rich as to the things of the world. For because they are rich they despise the poor, and they persecute the meek, and their hearts are upon their treasures; wherefore, their treasure is their god. And behold, their treasure shall perish with them also.
And also, ye yourselves will succor those that stand in need of your succor; ye will administer of your substance unto him that standeth in need; and ye will not suffer that the beggar putteth up his petition to you in vain, and turn him out to perish.
Perhaps thou shalt say: The man has brought upon himself his misery; therefore I will stay my hand, and will not give unto him of my food, nor impart unto him of my substance that he may not suffer, for his punishments are just—
But I say unto you, O man, whosoever doeth this the same hath great cause to repent; and except he repenteth of that which he hath done he perisheth forever, and hath no interest in the kingdom of God.
For behold, are we not all beggars? Do we not all depend upon the same Being, even God, for all the substance which we have, for both food and raiment, and for gold, and for silver, and for all the riches which we have of every kind?
And again Alma commanded that the people of the church should impart of their substance, every one according to that which he had; if he have more abundantly he should impart more abundantly; and of him that had but little, but little should be required; and to him that had not should be given.
And thus they should impart of their substance of their own free will and good desires towards God, and to those priests that stood in need, yea, and to every needy, naked soul.
And this he said unto them, having been commanded of God; and they did walk uprightly before God, imparting to one another both temporally and spiritually according to their needs and their wants.
(Note the paradox in these verses, related to what I discussed above, of being "commanded" yet needing to fulfill this command voluntarily, with one's "free will and good desires"--doing this, as all things, "unto God.")
Note also this remarkable statement from some early LDS Church leaders: "The experience of mankind has shown that the people of communities and nations
among whom wealth is the most equally distributed, enjoy the largest degree of
liberty. . . . One of the great evils with which our own nation is menaced at
the present time is the wonderful growth of wealth in the hands of a
comparatively few individuals. . . .
If this evil should not be checked, and measures not taken to prevent the
continued enormous growth of riches among the class already rich, and the
painful increase of destitution and want among the poor, the nation is likely to
be overtaken by disaster . . ." (Brigham Young,
Daniel H. Wells, Wilford Woodruff, Orson Pratt, Lorenzo Snow, Franklin D.
Richards, Brigham Young Jr., George A. Smith, John Taylor, Orson Hyde, Charles
C,. Rich, Erastus Snow, George Q. Cannon, Albert Carrington, qtd. in Edward WilliamTullidge, History of Salt Lake City  728-29). (For the source and a fuller version of the statement see http://books.google.com/books?id=fNkBAAAAMAAJ&q=luxurious+habits&f=false#v=snippet&q=luxurious%20habits&f=false )