Giving, helping, caring—these are words frequently mentioned in the writings and orations of most religious and social philosophers. Giving and helping and caring are concepts that touch something deep in the breast of civilized mankind and call forth the kind of responses that distinguish him from the baser animals: compassion, kindness, generosity, concern for the welfare of others. This is a thought echoed in The Proverbes of John Heywood (1546), “Better to give than to take.”
Such is the wellspring that has led to uncountable acts of individual benevolence—the coin in the outstretched hand of a beggar, the feeding of the tramp at the door, the donation of clothing to warm the poor. At a more organized level, the desire to give and share has led to the founding of literally thousands of private charities which search for cures for diseases, fight famine in far-off places, and secure foster parents for needy children in foreign lands. These are the instincts that have led to an outpouring of private gifts in myriad forms for the victims of earthquake, flood, fire, drought, pestilence, and war.
In the United States, this individual generosity of spirit found its strongest expression on the frontier. Most pioneers were on the same economic level—poor—and they labored to help each other. They cooperated in barn raisings and house buildings. They joined to plant and to harvest, and they took care of the destitute among them.
Americans are certainly not unique in feeling and acting upon such uplifting emotions. Charity has come from the individuals of many nations in time of crisis and need, yet Americans are noted throughout the world for their willingness to give. Most people would agree that individual charity is a positive force which ennobles the donor, uplifts society, and aids the less fortunate. Therefore, it should be encouraged.
Those who criticize the charity of individual Americans—both at home and abroad—have argued that it springs not from generosity or nobility of spirit, but rather from a selfish desire on the part of the donors to make themselves feel better, that the gifts are made to assuage guilty consciences for being so wealthy. Oliver Goldsmith echoed such a sentiment in The Traveller when he commented, “They give to get esteem.”
However, the real corruption of this spirit of generosity came not because some gave in order “to get esteem,” but rather when it was transformed from individual initiative to public policy. In the Populist era and again during the New Deal, the children and grandchildren of those who pioneered the frontier joined with Eastern liberals to translate what had been an individual act into government policy at the state and national levels. No longer would neighbors help raise a barn; there would be Federally subsidized farm loans. Nor was there need for a house raising; rather there would be FHA loans and low income housing. Plowing and harvesting would be Federally subsidized, and the county poor farm would be replaced by food stamps, aid to dependent children, rent subsidies, free health care, and numerous other programs.
But in the process of institutionalizing what had been a soaring of the individual spirit, philanthropy became a caricature of itself and was transformed into something negative. When philanthropy is demanded by law—in what amounts to a forced redistribution of the wealth—the result is neither of benefit to its recipients nor uplifting to those whose taxes pay for it. Today in the United States, statistics abound which show the deleterious effect of excessive socialism: in the soaring rate of illegitimate births and one-parent families, in the number of “third generation welfare and proud of it” loafers, in abandoned housing projects which became instant slums when completed, in waste, fraud, malfeasance, and misfeasance at every level of the bureaucracy.
Moreover, the taxes which support this system have discouraged the work incentive at the individual level while encouraging tax avoidance, which throws an extra burden on the honest taxpayer. In addition, this socialistic approach to government has led to so many demands for public largess that even excessive taxes cannot pay for it. The result has been runaway Federal deficits mounting toward fiscal chaos—which in the end will hurt most those whom the socialists claim they want to help: the needy.
In short, enacting philanthropy into state and Federal legislation has turned the whole Sermon on the Mount into an exercise in white vice.