Sydney M. Williams
Thought of the Day
“Government, Compassion & Charity”
January 15, 2018
“Kindness is the language the deaf can hear and the blind can see.”
Mark Twain (1835-1910)
Year-end is when requests arrive to support myriad causes. Some are of no interest or are fraudulent, but most are from organizations we want to help. Most of us have to make decisions, as our pockets are not bottomless. Nevertheless, the exercise is cathartic and feelings of altruism add to a sense of well-being.
For more than eighty years, safety nets have been a structural part of federal budgets. Now, they dominate spending. According to Pew Research, entitlement programs, such as Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, veteran’s benefits, unemployment compensation, etc., accounted for 67% of 2016’s $4 trillion budget. We are a compassionate people, and politicians are especially so when it comes to other-people’s money. The dispensing of largesse is a popular way to win votes, and nobody is more expert at this than Washington politicians. But, as Margaret Thatcher once warned, we risk running out of “other-people’s” money. Removing the cookie jar (or making it more difficult to access) – what adults must do – is unpopular. Those who have grown dependent on government – and millions have – lend credence to a modern-day interpretation of that post-World War I song: “How Ya Gonna Keep ‘em Down on the Farm (After They’ve Seen Paree?)” It is right to be compassionate. It is not charitable to foster dependency.
President George W. Bush once said, “I call my philosophy and approach compassionate conservativism. It is compassionate to actively help our fellow citizens in need. It is conservative to insist on responsibility and results.” The first part of Mr. Bush’s explanation is agreed to by all. The second is ignored.
What happens when compassion becomes charity? Government should mirror its people. But it is devoid of feeling. Its purpose and responsibility is to create, administer and adjudicate laws, ensure the rights and property of its citizens, provide defense against enemies at home and abroad, and to ease commerce via treaties and through the building and maintenance of roads, bridges, and ports. It should provide youth a basic education. It should ensure a safety net under those who because of age or infirmity are unable to care for themselves. Compassion is healthy, as it reflects the people, but federal deficits, a crumbling infrastructure and a depleted military suggest politically-motivated hearts are bigger than fiscally-responsible heads. Charity is distinct, and best left to individuals and to private, non-profit organizations.
This is not to be critical of Mr. Bush. His post-Presidency has shown him to be a decent, empathetic man, especially in his treatment of soldiers wounded in wars to which he committed them. I look at his book, Portraits of Courage, and marvel at how he captured despair and bravery, sadness and joy, grief and relief. He wrote in his introduction: “I painted these men and women as a way to honor their service to the country and to show my respect for their sacrifice and courage.” What greater devotion to his country can a former President express?
There are those who argue we are a nation of equals, and we are, before the law and in our rights as citizens. But that notion becomes convoluted by those who feel compassion requires outcomes to be equal, despite inherent and unalterable differences. We have myriad talents and aspirations. Some are more intelligent, more dedicated, with greater ambitions. Some more athletic, and others willing to work smarter and harder. A few are born with limited skills and opportunities. A free society allows people to achieve what they can, within the law and with deference to civil behavior. A compassionate society ensures that those unable to care for themselves will not be forsaken. But we should not encourage recipients of government largesse to become dependent. Throughout history, inequality becomes exaggerated during times of rapid innovation, as happened during the industrial revolution and as is happening now, with innovative new technologies. However, over time, these “creatively destructive” changes benefit all society. In the U.S., we partially compensate for different outcomes through the provision of services to aid the needy, aged, infirm, and those born with conditions that prevent the realization of dreams. We fund those costs with an income tax that is the most progressive in the world. But, we are not the same, nor can we ever be.
At his son’s graduation from the 9th grade at Cardigan Mountain School in New Hampshire last June, Chief Justice John Roberts spoke: “From time to time, in the years to come, I hope you will be treated unfairly, so that you will come to know the value of justice…I wish you bad luck, again from time to time, so that you will be conscious of the role of chance in life, and understand that your success is not completely deserved and that the failure of others is not completely deserved either.” Roberts words might have been taken from the Gospel according to Luke: “For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required.” He was right about justice and the role luck plays in our lives.
He was speaking to a people who are the most magnanimous on earth – not because of government entitlement programs, but because of the nature of its people. As a percent of national income, no nation comes close to the U.S. in the generosity of its citizens. According to the IRS, Americans gave away $373 billion in 2016, to 1.5 million registered non-profits. That amount does not include hundreds of millions in cash contributions that millions give to the homeless on city streets, or the millions placed in collection plates in houses of worship. It does not include the hundreds of millions of dollars in non-itemized donations. It does not include volunteerism, Kickstarter, or Go-Fund-Me. According to the latter’s web site, $5 billion has been raised in contributions from 50 million people. Other countries have more lavish welfare programs, but our citizens’ generosity is unique in the annals of nations. We take pride in self-sufficiency, and we recognize the dignity that is attributed to work and the independence that self-sufficiency brings. Nevertheless, in a world tilting toward selfies, the Chief Justice’s wisdom was refreshing.
A Chinese proverb that has pertinence says: “Give a man a fish and he eats for a day; teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime.” We cannot feed all in the world who are hungry. We cannot provide sanctuary for all who have been forced to emigrate. We cannot protect every person against the ravages of nature, or the bestiality of mankind. We cannot protect every forest, river and stream, nor clean up every ocean and pond. Like individuals, options must be weighed. We can help educate people. We can show the advantages of democracy and liberty through the example of our lives and our government – of how freedom, which can never be taken for granted, is illusive and worth defending. We can call out those who repress their citizens, and support those who revolt against tyranny. But we must acknowledge that behind the empathy we offer is a free people and the free-market capitalism that allows us to be charitable. We should be compassionate, but we must measure economic costs, less we become a nation and people in need.
The Left must understand that charity is individually driven, and that making people dependent is not charity. The Right must recognize that government reflects the compassion of its citizens. Both sides must realize the necessity for economic growth. Both must know where compassion ends and charity begins. In 1 Corinthians, in the King James version, the Apostle Paul speaks: “And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.” He wasn’t addressing the Roman Senate (or the U.S. Congress); he was speaking to the people.