All Commentary
Monday, June 29, 2015

Generous with Someone Else’s Money

Misguided Compassion at Public Expense

What could be more magnanimous than a cafeteria worker giving out free lunches? Or an education official writing off school loans? In both cases, the recipients of the largess must see a champion. Yet, in neither case is the person acting as a beneficent philanthropist paying the costs of the apparent charity. The bill goes to the taxpayers. Public officials should learn that the money is not theirs to give.

Not Hers to Give

Della Curry recently lost her job as kitchen manager at an elementary school in Aurora, Colorado. She admitted that the school fired her “for giving food to children that did not have money.” She admits that doing so was legally wrong, but, she adds, “I do not feel bad about it and would do it again in a heartbeat.”

Curry presents herself as a great humanitarian and denounces this rich nation for failing to “provide lunch for its children,” but she did not pay for a single child’s lunch. She did not give them any of her own food, nor sacrifice financially on their behalf. Rather, she gave them a full lunch at public expense.

Public officials should learn that the money is not theirs to give.


Indeed, contrary to her claim, the school district was no collective Scrooge. Many children were on official school lunch plans and received free or cheap meals. In fact, a family of four could earn $44,000 annually and still receive a federal subsidy. Any other student without money received free meals three times. After that, cashless children received a cheese sandwich.

But that wasn’t good enough for Curry. She denounced a cheese sandwich as inadequately nutritious, so she gave away the school’s money as she saw fit.

Not His to Forgive

Far bigger bucks are involved in US Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s giveaway. The 100-campus, for-profit Corinthian College chain has collapsed, leaving some heavily indebted students in limbo. Students from these schools are thought to carry about $3.6 billion in publicly backed loans.

It’s a tragic situation with multiple offenders: apparently mismanaged and perhaps fraudulently run educational institutions, predictably expansive and expensive federal education subsidies, and possibly inattentive, careless students. The most obvious victims are the taxpayers, who were forced to underwrite poor educations unlikely to yield the promised “social benefit” that is supposed to justify munificent government aid. Now Secretary Duncan has promised to forgive loans for potentially tens of thousands of students if they can prove “fraud” by the schools.

Secretary Duncan explained, “You’d have to be made of stone not to feel for these students.”

True, just as one has to sympathize with students without lunch money. But taxpayers also deserve sympathy. They had no choice in the matter, as their money was given to students who might not have been well-suited to college and who signed up at schools that provided little education.

Surely the first responsibility of any student is to investigate the school he or she is considering attending. That obligation increases as one moves down the list of colleges to ones lacking positive public reputations — or any public reputation at all.

These students made bad choices. That’s no reason to relieve them of responsibility — at someone else’s involuntary expense — for an obligation they voluntarily assumed.

The usual plethora of “activists” who make a living trying to give away other people’s money called on the administration to simply write off all the debt — or rather, to shift the burden from the students to the taxpayers. But Senator Lamar Alexander, chairman of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, took an unusually forthright stand, stating, “The department is establishing a precedent that puts taxpayers on the hook for what a college may have done.” This political temptation “is one more reason it was a bad idea to make the US Department of Education the banker for students as well as the regulator of their colleges.”

Unfortunately, Duncan said the department intended to create a process that would apply far beyond Corinthian College students. The potential cost of this sort of counterfeit generosity is mind-blowing. Forty million Americans owe a total of $1.2 trillion in student loans. Imagine how many might believe that they deserve a debt write-off.

Not Theirs to Receive

There was a time when Americans would not have expected the government to provide free lunches or subsidized university educations. Certainly Americans would have been shocked to find public officials determined to ever-expand the reach of such programs, irrespective of any sense of need.

Even elected officials once stood against public giveaways. In a famed example published in Harper’s Magazine and reprinted by FEE, Rep. Davy Crockett opposed an appropriation for the widow of a naval officer. He reminded his colleagues that the well-intentioned bill had no constitutional warrant, and that “we must not permit our respect for the dead or our sympathy for a part of the living to lead us into an act of injustice to the balance of the living.”

Decades later, his spirit haunted the White House. Grover Cleveland was an old-school Democrat known for his vetoes as Buffalo mayor, New York governor, and US president. In the latter position in 1887, he blocked a drought relief bill, explaining, “I do not believe that the power and duty of the General Government ought to be extended to the relief of individual suffering which is in no manner properly related to the public service or benefit.”

Imagine a president today taking such an action and making such a statement.

Years ago, compassion meant “to suffer with.” It eventually morphed into writing a check. Today, politicians claim to be compassionate when they make other people write checks.

But whatever the perceived need, the public’s money should not be the government’s to give. Politicians are doing wrong. The bigger problem is that many of their constituents want them to do wrong. Until people understand that Uncle Sam should not be an all-season Santa Claus, public officials will continue to act like Delia Curry and Arne Duncan.

  • Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and the author of a number of books on economics and politics. He writes regularly on military non-interventionism.