All Commentary
Tuesday, October 1, 1985

Philanthropy and Freedom

Mr. Peterson is a free-lance writer in East Greenville, Pennsylvania, anxious to share some of the lessons he’s learned concerning the freedom philosophy.

Every time the opportunity arises, I enjoy traveling to nearby Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where I can observe the Amish and their farms. I enjoy seeing their neatly ploughed fields, immaculate homes, horse-drawn carriages, and handmade crafts. More importantly, however, I admire their deep commitment to a mixture of self-reliance and community charity. It reminds me of what our nation once was and could again become.

It is not their primitive, agrarian society I advocate. I long for increased self-reliance and an individual concern for our fellow man as opposed to the now predominant dependence on government handouts.

Early in our nation’s history, Americans—farmers, laborers, merchants, and manufacturers alike—understood that charity was the responsibility and privilege of individuals and religious organizations. They never dreamed of relegating this duty to any other institution, especially not to government.

After the Civil War, however, an almost imperceptible change began to occur in the attitude of individuals. As the power of the federal government overshadowed that of individual state and local governments, the central government began to assume duties once fulfilled solely by individuals and churches, including those duties involving charity.

Perhaps the greatest changes in attitude came during the New Deal. In an attempt to provide “quick fix” cures for the problems of the Depression, government usurped the role of individuals in charity and philanthropy. Government became the primary provider of jobs, homes, and other humanitarian aid. It did not take long for the American people to begin looking to Uncle Sam for the sustenance of life and industry in America.

Then came the “Great Society” under President Lyndon Johnson with its myriad welfare and public assistance programs. By this time, government assistance had come to be viewed as practically an inalienable right of every needy American.

This attitude has since become entrenched in American life. Whenever workers lose their jobs, families lose their homes, or farmers lose their mortgages, there is an immediate cry for Federal assistance. Any hint of freezing the budgets of such programs at existing levels brings an outcry of anguish from social do-gooders across the nation.

Despite such vociferous defense of government assistance, there are several logical reasons for returning charity and welfare to the private sector. Government, some people are beginning to admit, simply cannot afford to continue financing the ever-increasing demands for its assistance. Private charity is more efficient and more effective than the government dole because it can ap ply the help where it is needed most—on a local, individual level—and keep administrative costs down. It is easier through private charity to encourage individual pride and to stimulate efforts toward self-help and self-improvement, whereas government assistance encourages laziness and idleness. Private charity is also more personal than bureaucratic welfarism.

The most compelling reason to return charity to private hands, however, is because that is exactly where it belongs. Charity is not the responsibility of government. Government’s only legitimate role is defender and peace-keeper, not feeder, clothier, and general provider for the people.

The General Welfare

When confronted by this proposition, proponents of government assistance and welfarism generally assert two reasons for legitimizing government usurpation of this duty: the mandate of the general welfare clause in the U.S. Constitution and the argument that private enterprise capitalists exploit rather than care for the needy.

The preamble of the Constitution states that the federal form of government was instituted to, among other things, “promote the general welfare.” This phrase, statists contend, gives government a carte blanche to care for the people of the nation. Carried to the extreme, the logic of this argument encompasses the provision by government of cradle-to-grave social welfare for every individual in the country.

Contrary to this erroneous interpretation, however, the “general welfare clause” means only that government is empowered to promote, through its peace-keeping authority and power, an atmosphere in which all citizens are free both to effect their own well-being and to help provide voluntarily for the well-being of other less fortunate individuals around them. The Founding Fathers would be appalled to know that any other interpretation was made of this clause.

The idea that capitalists inhumanely exploit the needy, thereby necessitating government interference and assistance, has long been espoused by socialists and Marxists. They enjoy portraying free-market entrepreneurs as obese, callous magnates who violently oppress and exploit the unfortunate laboring masses. They claim capitalism helps only the rich at the expense of the poor.

Lenin argued, “Capitalists are no more capable of self-sacrifice than a man is capable of lifting himself by his own bootstraps.”

Jawaharlal Nehru complained, “The forces of a capitalist society, if left unchecked, tend to make the rich richer and the poor poorer.”

Even Roman Catholic bishops recently condemned the American free enterprise system. They apparently prefer a government-enforced redistribution of wealth, perceiving capitalists as unfeeling and greedy but a socialistic, paternalistic government as the savior of the downtrodden poor.

While many supporters of the free enterprise way of life would automatically reject Marxist premises as false, one important point does warrant our attention: There is always and in every instance the potential for such a premise becoming a reality.

Thomas Jefferson recognized the danger when he warned, “Material abundance without character is the surest way to destruction.”

Grover Cleveland, aware of the threat of communist ideas to capitalism, was not blind to the dangers within the free enterprise system itself. “Communism is a hateful thing and a menace to peace and organized government,” he declared, “but the communism of combined wealth and capital, the outgrowth of overweening cupidity and selfishness, which insidiously undermines the justice and integrity of free institutions, is not less dangerous than the communism of oppressed poverty and toil, which, exasperated by injustice and discontent, attacks with wild disorder the citadel of rule.”

Obsessed by Materialism

There is within every individual a natural tendency to develop an attitude of selfish materialism which leads to the complete disregard for those who, perhaps through no fault of their own, happen to be less fortunate than the average citizen. In the past, genuine concern and compassion has prompted those with the financial means to develop a variety of programs that help meet the needs of such people. Private and religious philanthropy and benevolence saw to it that those in need were cared for.

In many instances, however, there has developed among the citizens of the free world such an obsession with personal and material advancement as to seemingly obscure the efforts of private philanthropy. Some individuals have become so wrapped up in obtaining more and more for themselves that they have thought less and less of the needs of others. Their conscience has been seared by the attitudes of “looking out for number one” and “get to the top of the ladder as quickly as you can regardless of those on whom you must step in the process.”

In direct proportion to the unwillingness of private individuals to contribute philanthropically, the government has eagerly stepped in to fill the void. With these government funds, however, has come the inevitable hand of government control. And, contrary to what some would have us believe, government welfare has not been the gleaming success Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” predicted. If anything, it has only encouraged and compounded the problems.

While self-interest has always been at the heart of capitalism, it has also been accompanied by a feeling of human charity and a sense of social responsibility toward one’s fellow man. This is shown by countless instances of private philanthropy. Andrew Carnegie gave an estimated $350 million to charities. Marshall Field provided $8 million for a museum and donated land for the campus of the University of Chicago. “There is no happiness in mere dollars,” he warned. “It is only in the wider public affairs, where money is a moving force toward the general welfare, that the possessor of it can possibly find pleasure, and that only in constantly doing more.”

Private Charity

But most charitable funds come from the average citizen, the ones who share in the wealth produced by the wealthy minority. The magnitude of this giving was brought to light recently in Philadelphia. In an attempt to evict members of MOVE, a radical antisocial commune, police accidentally destroyed the homes of 61 families. Individuals, corporations, and community organizations immediately began raising funds for the innocent victims of the tragedy. A radio station solicited $30,000 from its listeners in less than a week. A large corporation donated $56,000 for emergency relief and challenged other businesses to match it. All of this took place—even before government officials had pieced together what had happened—because people were genuinely concerned about the welfare of their fellow men. As a result, some people are beginning to remember that Philadelphia is the “city of brotherly love.”

Yet there is still a clear danger that capitalism, if left unchecked—not by government interference but by the superior moral standards of individuals—will degenerate into a state similar to that predicted by the Marxists.

This danger, however, is not—as Marxists would have us believe—inevitable. With the rebuilding of sound national moral foundations and the strengthening of individual character, capitalism can continue to disprove socialist propaganda by meeting the needs and fulfilling the dreams of every citizen willing to put forth efforts at self-improvement and responsible social consciousness. History has repeatedly proven that not only the greatest material prosperity but also the greatest philanthropy has resulted from commitment to the freedom philosophy.

Such high character and morality cannot be dictated by an omnipotent government; it must arise voluntarily from within the individual heart and conscience. It must develop as the result of an awareness of the truth and practicality of the Golden Rule: “Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them” (Matthew 7:12). It must be the outgrowth of realizing the need for an individual to love his neighbor as himself.

Samuel Smiles, who wrote widely on the practical aspects of personal and entrepreneurial success, concluded, “. . . society mainly consists of two classes—the savers and the wasters, the provident and the improvident, the thrifty and the thriftless, the haves and the have-nots.” And so it will ever be, even in the best of free markets. But in a state-planned economy the number of wasters, improvident, thriftless, and have-nots is far greater than in a free economy.

The capitalist so quickly condemned by so many is, in Smiles’ words, “merely a man who does not spend all that is earned by work.” He then employs the money or time or resources saved in the acquisition of even more wealth in order to rise above a mere existence. He uses it to raise his family’s standard of living. And what he believes he can afford to give to others for the fulfillment of their needs or desires, he contributes as he sees fit.

Philanthropy Begins at Home

To some, this may on the surface seem very selfish and self-centered, but it has proven to be without question the most effective system of encouraging philanthropy known to human history. Leonard Read wrote that “if material wealth has any moral purpose at all, it is to free men from the restrictions which are imposed by a subsistence level of living . . . .” Not only does the successful capitalist improve his own lot but also that of his fellow men through the goods or services he provides. In addition, his success permits him to contribute through charity to the improvement of others without hindering his own standard of living.

Those who decry this system of free philanthropy fail to offer in its place any more adequate or more effective alternative system. While capitalism admittedly has its problems, in stark comparison to any form of totalitarianism—whether benevolent or malevolent—these difficulties are negligible. “The inherent vice of capitalism is the unequal sharing of blessings,” Winston Churchill stated, “but the inherent vice of socialism is the equal sharing of misery.”

Individual Moral Improvement

The solutions to the needs of our fellow men lie not in regulation, intervention, or government- coerced programs, but in the moral improvement of the individual. Along with this will come to the individual realization that one must be not only honest but also generous. This will sometimes require self-sacrifice on our part. Such sacrifice will, however, be strictly voluntary.

The most important form of generosity is the giving of one’s self. Success experts Napoleon Hill and W. Clement Stone advised, “Share yourself without expecting a reward, payment, or commendation. And above all else—keep your good turn a secret.” Do so consistently and that secret will not remain one for long. Consumers notice and reward such generosity and good will.

Modern-day capitalists can help dispel the socialistic accusations of selfishness by realizing and acting upon the truth that if one wants to get more he has to give more. As someone once wrote:

If you want to be rich, give; If you want to be poor, grasp; If you want abundance, scatter; If you want to be needy, hoard!

The story has been told of a man who opened a butcher shop in a small town which already had several such businesses. Despite the fact that his prices were higher than any of his competitors’, his shop became the most frequented shop in town. When questioned about how he did it, the wise man replied, “I give them a smile and twenty ounces to the pound.”

The key to success, not only in business but also in life itself, is to give something to others. Some of us can give money, others offer goods, and still others provide services. But we can all give something. We should count that day lost in which we have not tried to give a little of ourself to or for someone else. This is the essence of true charity. It is an integral part of true free enterprise.