All Commentary
Sunday, July 1, 1973

Giving and Receiving With Respect


Following graduation from Tuskegee Institute, Miss Wortham served a term in the Peace Corps and has worked since as an information research specialist in communications and educational policy.

Americans have always helped each other and the spirit of charity continues to prevail. But even as it does, there are those benefactors and beneficiaries who abuse the responsibilities inherent in the lending and receiving of help. The motives of goodwill and justice have been removed from the relationships between individuals well off and those in need. Disclaimed as something suspect by many, charity has been largely replaced by administered reform. It has been turned into a tool of appeasement for the givers, and the receivers look upon it as the spoils of social pressure. Intellectual and political reformers argue for the acceptance of a philosophy of social welfare “based on need as the sole criterion” — welfare as a matter of entitlement.’

This idea of giving in response to the demands of potential recipients or under political and social duress wasn’t always so prevalent in our society. There was a time when voluntary charity was deemed proper — a measure of respect between giver and receiver. Those in need usually deserved the assistance they received and those who gave were determined in their efforts to see that their giving did not become a crutch. This was generally true whether the giving and receiving of help was between pioneer neighbors or between wealthy philanthropists and the “disadvantaged.”

Through their philanthropy —not to mention their accumulation of capital, their entrepreneurship and technical ingenuity — American businessmen have probably contributed more than any other private sector of Americans to the prosperity of those who could not have done so themselves. Yet they are least appreciated for the voluntary aid they have given untold millions. An indication of how little many of today’s young people know of the good done by businessmen is seen in a national study of more than 54,000 college-bound black high school students published by the National Scholarship Service and Fund for Negro Students in 1972. A majority of the respondents reported that they felt that military figures, actors or entertainers, athletes and businessmen (in that order) contributed the least to society.2 It is ironic that many of the colleges and universities these young people now attend could not exist except for the enormous financial support they receive from businessmen.

Much has been written on the subject of philanthropy and charity, but not often is the subject treated from a view held in common by both benefactor and beneficiary. However, in the case of wealthy benefactor Andrew Carnegie and Booker T. Washington, ex-slave beneficiary in behalf of black students, a common view was held; and perhaps their attitude toward their relationship was just as important as the relationship itself proved to be. There is a great deal of insight to be gained from the views of Carnegie and Washington on the matter of philanthropy.

Carnegie, the Benefactor

In 1900 Andrew Carnegie wrote an essay in which he stated: “A man’s first duty is to make a competence and be independent. But his whole duty does not end here… It is his duty to contribute to the general good of the community in which he lives… To try to make the world in some way better than you found it, is to have a noble motive in life.”3 For the businessman this could be expressed best by plowing his wealth back into society. In support of this belief Carnegie had donated $350 million to various projects by the time of his death in 1919.

John Hope Franklin, historian of the American Negro, believed that while men like Carnegie were interested in stimulating the public to recognize certain existent needs as yet unfelt by society, they also hoped to encourage the principle of self-help that would benefit their capitalist goals. Their interests in the post-Civil War South, for instance, were as much to train a working force to support the industries they brought to the Southern economy as they were to improve the black and white Southern citizenry.

According to Franklin, the charity of businessmen also stemmed from their sense of noblesse oblige. Comparing wealthy industrialists with a feudal aristocracy, he wrote: “[They] had a feeling of duty toward those whose profit from the economic order was not so obvious.”4

Ludwig von Mises refutes this characterization of industrialists, saying: “The wealth of an aristocrat is not a market phenomenon; it does not originate from supplying the consumers and cannot be withdrawn or even affected by any action on the part of the public. It stems from conquest or from largess on the part of a conquerer.”5

As he points out repeatedly in his essays, Carnegie knew full well that his role as a businessman was a market phenomenon. His wealth was not the spoils of the conquest of men, but made possible by his conquest of nature. However, his status in the market was always dependent on the consumers’ vote of confidence. And to maintain a creditable status, his economic obligation was to produce those goods and services that satisfied what the masses perceived their needs to be. This is a far cry from feudal aristocracy.

Conditions of Freedom

No producer can profit except that he meets the demands of a willing buyer. As voluntary exchange of one’s property is the rule of the free market, so should the respect of the property be the rule of humanitarian endeavors between individuals. One man’s poverty does not entitle him to the wealth of another; neither does one man’s wealth obligate him to another’s poverty.

However tempting it may be, it is very difficult to conclude from Carnegie’s writing that his philanthropy was motivated by a sense of guilt for his success. Neither did he give his wealth as a peace-offering to the masses who had not fared as well in the market place. Carnegie was not an apologist. In answer to critics of wealth, he said: “Not evil, but good, has come to the race from the accumulation of wealth by those who have had the ability and energy to produce it.”6

Unlike many of today’s giants of industry, Carnegie felt entitled to his wealth and power. As his defense he offered the principle of property rights: “… upon the sacredness of property civilization itself depends — the right of the laborer to his hundred dollars in the savings bank, and equally the legal right of the millionaire to his millions.” He believed that “the best fruit of society was produced from the soil of Individualism, Private Property, the Law of Accumulation of Wealth, and the Law of Competition.”7 He believed that the only way to be assured of saving free enterprise was to instill the principles of self-help in the masses who constituted his customers.

Neither was there any thought of using philanthropy as a tool of oppression as has been suggested.8 If anything, Carnegie and others wanted to lift the rest of humanity to their own level of thought and performance.

Notes On A Beneficiary

Nowhere in the chronicle of his fund-raising campaign for his school, Tuskegee Institute, did Booker T. Washington even begin to imply that he felt the rich owed their wealth to the members of his race or that they had a moral obligation to help Negroes per se. He was as hardheaded in his asking as his donors were in their giving.

Washington believed very much as Carnegie did that “… In bestowing charity, the main consideration should be to help those who will help themselves; to provide part of the means by which those who desire to improve may do so; to give those who desire to rise the aids by which they may rise; to assist, but rarely or never do all. Neither the individual nor the race is improved by almsgiving.”9

It took ten years of work before Washington was able to secure Carnegie’s interest and help. During their first meeting, Carnegie seemed to take no interest at all in Washington’s school. Determined to show the industrialist that Tuskegee was worthy of his aid, Washington waited until after ten years of hard work before he wrote to Carnegie in 1901 requesting a sum of $20,000 to build a library. In a very concise letter, he outlined how the money would be used: “[it] would not only supply the building but the erection of the building would give a large number of students an opportunity to learn the building trades, and the students would use the money paid them to keep themselves in school….”¹º

Carnegie sent the following reply to Washington: “I will be very glad to pay the bills for the library building as they are incurred, to the extent of twenty thousand dollars, and I am glad of this opportunity to show the interest I have in your noble work.””

During the years of Washington’s fund-raising some narrow-minded people accused him of begging— of seeking alms. But Washington knew well the manner of men he dealt with. They were not the kind of men who looked kindly toward begging. In reaction to those who called him a beggar, he wrote the following:

… I have usually proceeded on the principle that persons who possess sense enough to earn money have sense enough to know how to give it away, and that the mere making known of the facts regarding Tuskegee, and especially the facts regarding the work of graduates, has been more effective than outright begging. I think that the presentation of the facts, on a high, dignified plane, is all the begging most rich people care for.¹²

Like Washington, Carnegie believed that one should give to only the causes he deemed worthy. “… It is better for mankind that the millions of the rich were thrown into the sea than so spent as to encourage the slothful, the drunken and the unworthy,” wrote Carnegie.¹³

Washington was fully aware of the significance of the assistance he received. Unlike many critics of businessmen, he understood and respected the source of wealth and the men who produced it. His praise of his benefactors for their gifts was not tainted by any condemnation of the wealth that made those gifts possible. He was keenly aware of a potential benefactor’s option to refuse his request, understanding that the prime business of the businessmen was business:

My experience in getting money for Tuskegee has taught me to have no patience with those people who are always condemning the rich because they are rich, and because they do not give more to objects of charity… Those who are guilty of such sweeping criticism do not know how many people would be made poor, and how much suffering would result, if wealthy people were to part at once with any large proportion of their wealth in a way [as] to disorganize and cripple great business enterprises.14

Perhaps Washington understood better than many of his benefactors that their primary role as businessmen was to make a profit, and not to give it away. He certainly did not expect them to sacrifice their economic role in the market to serve his needs — however noble they might have been.

A Voluntary Response

Rather than in response to social pressure or political coercion, Carnegie chose to share his wealth because he felt a moral obligation to do so. Whether one agrees with his ethics is not the issue here. The point is that the idea of having a social responsibility originated with the businessmen themselves. It was a time during which the businessman suffered a minimal amount of duress from political quarters and was looked upon favorably by most people. Being left alone to produce, his personal sense of good will motivated him to go beyond what was his economic role in the community.

The degree to which businessmen were free to function on their own terms in an unregulated market corresponds to the degree of their willingness and ability to give assistance to others. Dr. Frederick Patterson of the United Negro College Fund points this out in a speech discussing the plight of the private Negro college — a major beneficiary of wealthy businessmen and philanthropic organizations. Patterson noted that, “These colleges `thrived’ during a period when large fortunes were not unusual and taxes were comparably low.

“In the late 20′s, as taxation began to increase — and particularly in the 30′s under the Roosevelt Administration — a substantial decrease took place in the funds available to the private colleges for Negro youth.

“The steadily worsening effort in fund-raising by the individual private college had reached a low point of diminishing returns by 1940….”¹5

It is no mere coincidence that at a time when our economy is being interfered with by the Federal government and the demand for social welfare is increasing, black colleges, museums and libraries all over the country are in dire economic straits, unable to enlist the amount of economic assistance from the private sector that they have enjoyed in the past. A man owes no man his property, but if he gives his wealth of his own free will, and does so with the scrutiny of men like Carnegie, it is likely that his sincerity will be appreciated and regard for him held high by the recipient. Washington set down his impression of the industrial benefactors to his school, and he found them to be “some of the best people in the world.”16

A Form of Blackmail

If we do not hear much of this kind of praise from those who are beneficiaries of the businessman’s philanthropy, perhaps it is because the giver and the receiver has each allowed his individual responsibility to shrink and be replaced by social and political blackmail. When the distinction between benefactor and beneficiary is removed, the dignity of both is short-circuited and whatever respect they might have had for themselves and each other is dissolved into a murky interchange of insincerity and deceit. The man who is in a position to aid others must not forget that, in the words of W. A. Paton, “every man deserves the precious opportunity to assume responsibility for his own course, whether he is swimming courageously upstream or paddling lazily, with plenty of company, in the other direction.”17 So too has each beneficiary a responsibility toward those who are his benefactors, and it is to denounce all efforts by government, intellectuals and pressure groups to deny a man his right to give or refuse assistance — to say “Yes” or “No” as his conscience dictates. “The element which gives meaning to charity,” wrote Russell J. Clinchy, “is personal consideration and responsibility but that element is lost when the edicts of the state are substituted for the voluntary decisions of persons. The means have destroyed the ends.”18 This is the essence of the two sides of voluntary charity as it ought to exist.

 

—FOOTNOTES—

1 See Improving the Public Welfare System, The Committee for Economic Development, New York, April, 1970.

2 A National Profile of Black Youth: The Class of 1971, National Scholarship Service and Fund for Negro Students, New York, 1972.

3 Carnegie, Andrew, “Thrift As A Duty,” The Empire of Business, New York: Doubleday, Doran and Company, Inc., 1913, p. 80.

4 Franklin, John Hope, From Slavery to Freedom, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1956, p. 381.

5 Mises, Ludwig von, The Anti-Capitalistic Mentality, Princeton: D. Van Nostrand Company, Inc., 1956, p. 6.

6 Carnegie, Andrew, The Gospel of Wealth, A Carnegie Reprint, Carnegie Corporation of New York, p. 5.

7 Ibid., p. 6.

8 In her article, “Notes Toward a Process of Afro-American Education,” (Harvard Educational Review, August, 1972), Dr. Thomasyne L. Wilson says the following: “It is time to remind ourselves that even when Anglos waxed philanthropic in the 1870′s, they (and we) perceived Afro-American education as something for ‘special people,’ instituted to keep us in our places at the bottom of the social scale… At best, [education] was a tool to remake Afro-Americans in the images of Anglos.”

9 Carnegie, op. cit., p. 15.

10 Washington, Booker T., Up From Slavery, New York: Bantam Books, Inc., 1970, p. 135.

11 Ibid., p. 135.

12 Ibid., p. 129.

¹3 Carnegie, op. cit., p. 14.

¹4 Washington, op. cit., p. 128.

¹5 Patterson, Frederick D., “The Black College: In Conflict and Challenge,” Contact Magazine, 3:16, October, 1971.

¹6 Washington, op. cit., p. 130.

¹7 Paton, W. A., “Let’s First Mend Tommy’s Trousers,” Essays on Liberty, Foundation for Economic Education, 12:426-27, 1965.

¹8 Clinchy, Russell J., “Charity: Biblical and Political,” Essays on Liberty, Foundation for Economic Education, 1:159-60, 1952.


  • Anne Wortham is an associate professor of sociology at Illinois State University. She is a rare voice in the liberty movement — a scholar and rogue academic. She wrote her first piece for The Freeman in 1966.