All Commentary
Monday, April 1, 1985

Essay on Caring

Mr. Foley, a partner in Schwabe, Williamson, Wyatt, Moore & Roberts, practices law in Portland, Oregon.

Political Aspirants are notably “concerned and caring” for the common man. But is theirs a genuine compassion, or does it lead to plans and actions opposed to their professed aims?

I suspect that the political/economic notion of “caring” generally amounts to ideological and practical extortion.

A significant number of the self-chosen saviors of mankind employ the caring concept as a tool for self-satisfaction and aggrandizement. Just as some men and women erect concert hails and athletic field-houses as modern pyramids to proclaim the importance of their being, so too do other individuals seek recognition and remembrance by the concoction of organized programs designed to alleviate real or feigned injustices besetting the world about them.

In some cases, the benefactor achieves substantial and tangible pleasure by participating in such a plan—he becomes involved in some activity which provides meaning to an otherwise desultory life. In other instances, his reward takes on a much more material flavor—proponents of many pseudo-charitable devices make a very good living from their parade of good works, deriving power or prestige from these endeavors. Yet another gaggle of compassionate souls creates the intangible pleasures incident to converting the resistant and erring heathen to a particular philosophical or theological point of view.

There is, of course, a fourth division-men and women who devote their efforts to assisting others in need without hope of tangible or intangible earthly rewards. Unfortunately, the numbers of this latter group appear to be declining.

The Dividing Line

A remarkable duality pervades the concept of caring and its current implementation. Force represents the dividing line. Application or refrain from coercion separates the wrongful intrusion into the sanctity of the life of another from the permissible compassionate endeavor. The law ought not impede attempts to aid others or to solve problems where those enterprises occur without compulsion. This should be true where the majority decries the problem as ridiculous or the solution as ill-advised; after all, the crowd often proves ineluctably wrong and, in any event, no human being possesses either the ability or the moral privilege to substitute his judgment for that of another choosing sentient being.

Conversely, no one should employ the legal monopoly of force to compel adherence to, participation in, or compliance with an artifice designed to better another, no matter how well intentioned or meritorious the plan. No individual should be permitted to thrust a decision or shunt responsibility for the consequences of his choice upon another, unwilling human being. Disregard of this salient principle necessarily denies the dignity of that other individual, since moral choice and accountability constitute an essential element in the human condition.

Those who purport to care, then, must submit to a test of means and motive.

The law (rules and orders created and enforced by mankind) should not address the means employed by those who promote compassion as a political or economic discipline except to assure that no individual or entity compels a dissenter to assent to, support or participate in a proposal disagreeable to the latter for any reason.

All too often, those who preach caring, compassion and concern rest their case upon the root of envy: Loathe the rich and trust the poor; take from the evil producer and give to the high- principled but helpless victim of circumstance and oppression. Such caring persons really do not care at all about others: The creators must be plundered, the users must be pandered, by force and violence, by false premises and promises, in order to salve the promoter’s inordinate ego and to effect his flawed view of mankind and the world. In these, the vast majority of instances, one can always count upon the concerned to care—for themselves!

Do Caring Programs Improve Our Lot?

Ignore for the moment the moral issue of might-makes-right in a good cause. Assume high-minded benevolence on the part of those who express concern. An essential question remains: Do the programs proposed by the “caring people” achieve meritorious results—do the solutions alleviate hunger, suffering and hurt?

Few individuals—and none of the vocal proponents of structured compassion—even pose this fundamental question, and for good reason: The undeniably negative response casts overwhelming doubt not only upon the efficacy of the particular solution but also upon the very substance upon which the adoring advocates of governmental charity base their lives! Make no mistake: All compulsive charities employ the state as the ultimate solution to any preconceived ill. One must search long and hard today to learn of organized attacks on human despair which resolutely avoid partaking of governmental subsidy or other coercive aid. Yet the presence or absence of force represents the imperative selector, the plumbline segregating acceptable and unacceptable charitable response.

Analysis of the effect of coercive programs must focus upon two discrete truths: First, the forceful response always produces unintended and unwanted consequences which render the program counterproductive. Second, the institutional response to a problem is always less helpful than the individual response.

Initially, the unseen consequence so unerringly and eloquently described by Bastiat and Hazlitt inevitably rises up to smite those who will do good with other people’s lives and property. Consider the current plight of the starving legions in Africa. Only the truly cruel eschew compassion for the suffering of another human being.

Nonetheless, most of Africa encounters famine, plague and pestilence with great regularity. Rhodesia (until its recent transmutation into Zimbabwe) and the Republic of South Africa serve as the most remarkable exceptions to this rule. The perceptive should inquire as to the reason for this recurring condition. After all, Africa contains a storehouse of natural resources, a plethora of exceptional ports, varieties of climate and rainfall, and other indicia of an ability to provide its denizens with an adequate living. Nevertheless, other nations on other continents lacking equivalent natural resources and gifts must provide both continuing subsistence and emergency foodstuffs to the people of the African Continent.

Delve beneath the superficial and one discerns the reason for this extraordinary seeming dichotomy. Slavery impoverishes; freedom feeds. Africa contains myriad venal, oppressive and murderous political regimes dedicated to the unyielding repression of liberty and the entrenchment of socialism. A free society-necessarily including a free economy—would and always will produce an abundant outpouring of goods, services and ideas in Africa as elsewhere. Instead, the caring people importune (sometimes with force, sometimes with manipulation) their fellows to aid the starving Africans, apparently oblivious to the fact that bad values and bloody dictators have caused the current and ever- present despair. The gift of largess does little to alleviate long-term hunger in Africa. And donations strangely turn up in the pockets of dictators, dictocrats and gunrunners. Unfortunately, a concomitant effect impedes the productive from future production. Human beings robbed of the fruits of their labors tend to reduce their future production, boding ill for the next generation of starving Africans.

Other examples abound, but the point is clear. Those politicians who accuse their critics of cruel and inhuman conduct if they resist transportation of great gobs of money to the poor, the helpless, and the disadvantaged, necessarily posit the axiom that it is not cruel and inhuman to steal and distribute as a modern Robin Hood. Not only are such politicians wrong but also their very actions will increase, not diminish, the problem perceived! As a dear and wise mentor early taught me, “No problem exists which the meddling of politicians will not make worse.”

Sadly, the liberal faith in democracy resolutely clings to a belief in government as the essential vehicle to help the less fortunate. Even the “old right” concurs that the state must aid those incapable of self-assistance, and the debate between the “old right” and the “old left” normally devolves into a controversy of definitions and a discussion of the level of the state most desirable to render the assistance.

Proper Role of the State

Unfortunately, acceptance of the cliché avoids the seminal question concerning the proper role of the state. The inquiry cannot be phrased in terms of “states rights,” for states possess no “rights,” only powers of ‘coercion. The proper issue is: Given the existence of human misfortune, who shall attempt to alleviate that condition? Surely not the state, the eternal compulsory bungler. Alleviation of distress calls for creative action. The state possesses only destructive powers. In face of calamity, we all believe that others should come to our assistance, yet charity and compulsion are mutually exclusive terms. Man ought to perform properly, and natural law (not the victim, not the positive law) ought to exact the penalty for failure to do so.

Again, the moral and the efficient coincide. The individual response to a problem is always better than the institutional response. It is more personal, more meaningful, more efficient, more direct. It tends to reach the heart of the issue with a minimum of overhead and delay, to resist excesses, and to avoid much weeping.

I am so very tired of caring people and sharing people who search for material or emotional monuments for their good works. They care about themselves; they do not share their own, but that belonging to another. I glory in the occasional iconoclast who disdains symbols and slogans and probes straight to the essence of a neighbor’s concern, with love and without fanfare. The overworked phrase “unsung heroes” truly describes the men and women who visit the sick, comfort the elderly, soothe the confused children and perform all manner of good works. It is much easier to lobby legislators to send “aid” (tax dollars) to Africa than it is to spend an afternoon in a nursing home, or Thanksgiving serving the homeless a turkey in a volunteer mission. I think that such a rare breed truly cares many times more than all those who blather openly about their commitment.

  • Ridgway K. Foley Jr. is a litigation lawyer who is passionate about individual and economic freedom, and has authored numerous scholarly articles on related subjects.