All Commentary
Tuesday, December 1, 1964

Giving Versus Earning


Mr. Chamberlin is a skilled observer and reporter of economic and political conditions at home and abroad. In addition to writing a number of books, he has lectured widely and is a contributor to The Wall Street Journal and numerous magazines.

This is the Christmas season, when stockings are being filled, cards of greeting fill the mails, and young and old alike are cheered by presents. It is a thoroughly delightful time of the year. But one need not be a Scrooge to realize that the Christ­mas spirit is not a formula for carrying on the activities of the workaday world. Individuals and nations alike must earn their way in the world. There is no Santa Claus with a boundless overflow­ing sack of presents.

These ideas might seem fairly obvious. But they are worth stat­ing because it is rather the fash­ion in current thinking to assume that, if enough money can be ex­tracted from taxpayers who are still solvent to “give” housing, education, and other supposedly withheld benefits to the “under­privileged” at home—and steel mills, power plants, and other aids to industrialization to impover­ished nations abroad—all will be for the best in the world. What is overlooked in this outwardly benevolent view is the indispen­sable human dynamo of individual initiative and ambition.

When New York and a number of other Northern cities were torn up with senseless and disgraceful riots in slum areas, these out­breaks were condoned on the ground that the rioters were pro­testing against proper standards of education and housing which had supposedly been “withheld” from them. But no one, to the best of my knowledge, undertook a seri­ous study to determine whether those who were most active in as­saulting policemen and looting liquor and other stores had made an earnest effort to make good use of the educational facilities which were offered to them. The best educational methods and plant imaginable are of little use with­out cooperation from those who are supposed to benefit from them. Education is not something that can be poured into every individ­ual, as milk can be poured into any bottle.

And public disorder is a singu­larly self-defeating means of open­ing up employment opportunities. The most charitable and broad­minded employer might be ex­pected to wince if a job applicant offered as part of his qualifications the information that he had hit half a dozen police officers with bottles and other missiles and car­ried off loot from as many stores.

The Will to Succeed

To emphasize, as much current talk and writing does, the sup­posed necessity of giving without any emphasis on the concurrent obligation of earning, is to put the cart before the horse. The most hopeful soldiers in the war on pov­erty are individuals who are de­termined to escape and overcome it, who have imbibed the spirit of Scarlett O’Hara, heroine of Gone with the Wind. As she grubs for bare subsistence in the devastated fields of her ruined plantation, she makes the vow: “I’ll never be poor again.”

Scarlett O’Hara’s spirit was, in the main, that of some ten or twelve million dispossessed and uprooted Germans and people of German origin, driven from their homes at the end of the war and dumped in the German Federal Republic with nothing but what they wore on their backs and car­ried in their hands. At first the special distress of this large group of forced immigrants seemed an almost insurmountable social problem for a country devastated by war bombing and suffering all the other consequences of a lost war.

A special party with the name, “Union of the Dispossessed and Homeless,” was formed to promote the interests of the refugees, obliged to start from scratch in a state of destitution which few Americans could match. But in the majority these refugees, their ranks later swelled by millions, who fled from communist-ruled East Germany before the Berlin Wall was erected in 1961, were hardworking, thrifty persons, pas­sionately determined to win back what had been swept away from them. Before long it became evi­dent that they were an asset, not a liability, in a reviving Germany desperately short of manpower because of war losses. Their fierce drive made them pacemakers for the rest of the Germans in the reconstruction and expansion of the national economy. Today the refugees are so completely ab­sorbed in German life that they require no special political or other representation. And this genuine miracle of rehabilitation, the pro­ductive resettlement in a crowded country of over ten million new inhabitants, was accomplished without government direction and regimentation. Government de­partments gave what help and ad­vice they could, but left the refu­gees free to seek their fortune as they chose.

It is a failure of judgment and emphasis to place the giving of this or that facility or advantage ahead of the will and determina­tion of the individual to make full use of his opportunities. One need only recall the case of an Ameri­can whose early educational and housing conditions would have shocked the tender-hearted social worker of the present time. He grew up in the roughest kind of pioneer, log-cabin circumstances; his schooling was simple; books in his home were few.

Yet he rose to the highest office in the land, steered the nation through a great war, and became the author of some of the most beautifully cadenced prose pas­sages in the English language. His name, of course, was Abraham Lincoln. Personalities like Lincoln are rare in any age or country. But no exhaustive research would be needed to turn up thousands of instances of men and women who emerged from early poverty to achieve business or professional success and who look back on their early years of hardship as a use­ful apprenticeship in self-disci­pline and character building.

Marx and Freud

The emphasis on “giving” (by a state that can only “give” by taking away from someone else) as opposed to earning by individ­ual effort is part of a general de­cline in the sense of individual moral responsibility. This may be traced in considerable degree to the influence of two European theorists, Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud. The interests of these men lay in quite different fields. But the logical conclusion of their be­liefs is that man is not a morally free agent, able and obligated to choose between right and wrong, between good and evil.

In Marx’s view of the world the overshadowing issue is the class struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, which is pre­destined to end in the triumph of the latter and the establishment of a socialist or communist form of society. Besides being a dog­matic atheist, Marx—like his po­litically most successful disciples, Lenin and Mao Tse-tung—brushed aside moral ideas as fictions of the capitalist class, designed to justi­fy the enslavement of the workers. The Marxist philosophy is deeply suffused with the conviction that human character and human ac­tion are primarily determined by class relations.

Freud’s theory of psychoanaly­sis leads to the same conclusion, that man is incapable of exercis­ing free will in moral judgment, by a different road. For, accord­ing to Freud, the subconscious impulses, over which the human being has no control, tend to dom­inate his character. Another Freudian teaching is that all ex­periences in the first phase of childhood are of the greatest im­portance and, in combination with the individual’s inherited sex con­stitution, are decisive in shaping character.

Of course, comparatively few Americans possess a firm grasp of Marxist economics and of the principles of Freudian psychoanal­ysis. Marx and Freud use techni­cal language and can hardly be described as “easy reading.” But, with the aid of popularization, both have considerably influenced the intellectual climate of the time—and in a direction adverse to individual responsibility.

Overemphasis on Government

This determinist view of human character leads to an exaggerated conception of the supreme impor­tance of environment, to the view of the individual as a kind of in­animate vessel, into which some beneficent state authority should pour given doses of education and welfare. Yet everyday experience provides constant refutation of this view.

Take two boys, perhaps mem­bers of the same family, who grow up in the same environment in a big city. One joins a corner gang and becomes first a juvenile de­linquent, then a full-fledged crim­inal. The other gets a job, studies law at night, and finally emerges completely from his original bleak and obscure surroundings. The harsh environment to which one succumbs is a spur and stimulus to the other. In neither case is the result predestined; it is a matter of individual character and will.

There was a time when what is now called juvenile delinquency would have been designated by a shorter and blunter term and would have been left to the disci­plinary action of the parent or, in more serious cases, to the po­lice, with little consideration for the “psychic scars” which swift and appropriate punishment might have left. Now there are platoons of psychiatrists and battalions of social workers to coddle the ju­venile who goes astray. No matter how much pain to innocent people and damage to property he may cause, we are taught to look on him not as a ruffian who will be better for some exemplary punish­ment, but as a warped and re­jected personality, a victim of his “underprivileged environment,” his disturbed inner complexes, or some such jargon.

Subsidized Crime

But what has been the practical result of the softening or aban­donment of the principle of indi­vidual responsibility in dealing with criminals, regardless of age? As J. Edgar Hoover, with his knowledge of the facts and statis­tics frequently reminds us, crime is increasing at an appalling rate, out of all proportion to the growth of the population.

Slums have long been associated in the public imagination with vice and crime, and optimists have held forth the prospect that, once slum dwellers are rehoused in better quarters, their bad habits will automatically disappear. Here again, experience shows that the problem is more complicated. A mere look around in any large city shows an enormous number of rehousing projects, mostly fi­nanced by public funds. Modern technology makes it easy to de­molish old rickety buildings and put up brick apartment houses with all conveniences. But all too often these apartment houses become notorious as headquarters of gangs and centers of vice, places into which doctors, post­men, and others on legitimate errands fear, with some reason, to enter. It seems just possible that it is not so much slums that make people as people who make slums.

Better education and technical training facilities are certainly de­sirable objectives in themselves. It may be hoped that as these be­come more available in areas of widespread unemployment some tangible results in the struggle against poverty will be observed. But the best tools will be useless unless there is a will to use them. Plans that take no account of the necessity to spark, in their beneficiaries, the human dynamo, the will to overcome obstacles, to succeed, are built on sand.

How to spark this dynamo where it is nonexistent is a prob­lem more difficult and complex than the erection of new housing projects, the provision of school supplies, machines, work benches.

But without the vital, indispensa­ble impulse from within the in­dividual, too often ignored or treated as negligible by social planners, no amount of merely ma­terial effort can be counted on to yield permanent satisfactory fruits.

Operation “Backfire”

The same considerations, in a different sphere, apply to the new and unprecedented policy, mainly practiced by the United States, of allocating taxpayers’ money to relieve distress and promote in­dustrial and economic development in foreign countries. In the past, compassionate individuals and or­ganizations raised funds to help the victims of famines, floods, earthquakes, and other natural disasters. And private investment took care of the development problem.

Despite an outflow of over $100 billion in various forms of uncom­pensated American largesse to foreign lands, it is by no means certain that the new method is more effective than the old, still less that America’s foreign policy aims and the stability of the more or less free world would collapse if it were not for the annual for­eign aid charge in the United States budget. Some indisputable facts suggest that the will of a people to produce energetically and effectively is much more im­portant for their well-being than a large inflow of government-to -government aid.

Finland, for example, received no postwar American aid and was saddled with a substantial Soviet indemnity bill. Yet the Finns, by and large, are enjoying their tra­ditional tidy, modest, but fairly comfortable standard of living. India, by contrast, has received over two billion dollars’ worth of American aid, plus smaller amounts from the Soviet Union and Great Britain. Yet, there has scarcely been an appreciable dent in India’s age-old poverty.

Indeed, one of India’s most re­spected economists, Professor B. R. Shenoy, is convinced that the American so-called aid has en­couraged the Indian government planners to push on with what Shenoy regards as the disastrous policy of concentrating capital in­vestment on industrial plants too big for India’s present needs, while neglecting the agriculture which is the main source of liveli­hood for most of the Indian peo­ple. Several years ago, at a meet­ing of the Mt. Pelerin Society, an international organization of econ­omists, political scientists, and others committed to the ideal of a free economy, Shenoy elicited a warm round of applause by de­claring:

“What India needs is not Amer­ican dollars. It is the spirit of the Mt. Pelerin Society.”

Nothing that has happened in the last few years has altered his conviction; he is equipped with a formidable array of facts and figures to prove that the Indian living standard has been languish­ing under a regime of state plan­ning. At the last meeting of the Mt. Pelerin Society, at Semmer­ing, near Vienna, the international nature of this problem of the gov­ernment planned economy was em­phasized by a comment which I overheard in a corridor. Shenoy had just completed a very critical exposition of the corruption, mal­administration, and misdirection of resources which have accom­panied state planning of the econ­omy in India. A representative from Ecuador remarked: “And this is the system they want to force on us in Latin America—through the Alliance for Prog­ress.”

It is a proved illusion that friends can be bought through lavish programs of foreign aid. The good will that may be won by an individual American who goes out on his own and does pioneer work as teacher, physician, engi­neer, is seldom carried over to bu­reaucratic dispensers of state aid. The sequel to foreign aid is often carping criticism of what has been done—and insistent demands for more.

By and large, individuals and nations usually obtain the stand­ard of well-being which they earn by hard, intelligent, efficient work. Attempts to enhance this standard through handouts, whether of the welfare state at home or of gov­ernment-to-government assistance abroad, lead to more disillusion­ment than success.

 

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The Law of Nature

This law of nature, being coeval with mankind and dictated by God himself, is of course superior in obligation to any other. It is binding over all the globe, and all countries, and at all times: no human laws are of any validity if contrary to this; and such of them as are valid derive all their force, and all their authority, mediately or immediately from this original.

SIR WILLIAM BLACKSTONE, Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765)


  • William Henry Chamberlin (1897-1969) was an American historian and journalist. He was the author of several books about the Cold War, Communism, and US foreign policy, including The Russian Revolution 1917-1921 (1935) which was written in Russia between 1922-34 when he was the Moscow correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor.