All Commentary
Monday, June 1, 1987

The True Charity

Kenneth McDonald is a free-lance writer and editor living in Toronto.

When government expands, special interest groups divert its powers to their own ends. These groups look upon government as a way to get other people to pay for things which group members would like to have but don’t want to pay for themselves.

Often this is done in the name of charity. For example, Africans are starving and we in the West must go to their aid. As private citizens, some of us do. We send money to organizations that channel food to hungry people. When our government sends aid, however, we have no choice but to send part of our tax money to the governments of the countries concerned.

Quite frequently, people there are starving because their own governments have made a botch of things. The post-colonial years of Africa have been marked by collectivization, forced resettlement, confiscation of grain and livestock through excessive taxes and obligations, coercive labor programs: nothing less than state terrorism against the farmers who formerly grew food enough for everyone, ironically, by coercing us as individuals into yielding part of our incomes in the form of taxes to African governments, our own governments reinforce the socialism that is causing Africans to starve.

This quite minor activity of our governments in the name of charity abroad is an extension of the major activity they indulge in at home, namely the forced redistribution of wealth and income—“redistribution” being a more palatable term than theft.

Again, this is done in the name of charity. It is to relieve poverty, or to “create jobs,” or to pay medical bills for the sick, or to build “affordable” housing. In one form or another the object is to subsidize particular groups of people at the expense of others.

This process has been going on for so long that even those of us’ who prize independence may be tempted to dismiss it as an ingredient not only of taxes but of the duty that citizenship and taxes entail. We pay the taxes and are quit of the duty.

In this way governments have inserted themselves between individuals whose instinct is to be charitable and other individuals to whom they might have offered charity.

It is when we consider the matter as individuals that we are brought up against the morality of it.

Rightly, we prize our independence. We achieve it through self-reliance, a quality that bids us to husband our resources so that we might not become a burden to others. Self-reliance, then, is the quality that would appear to be lacking in those that our governments oblige us to subsidize. The lack is attributable to a number of causes ranging from laziness to imitation, that is, growing up in places where dependence upon government subsidies is accepted as a natural condition.

Whatever the cause, to discourage self-reliance is to condemn those who lack it to a life of dependence. Yet this is where governmental redistribution has brought us. Charity thrice removed has proved uncharitable. By insulating recipients of public charity from the moral re storatives of work and self-reliance, governments confirm them in habits that morality condemns.

To all this the socialist replies: “Ah! But there is no work for them. They are the weak who have been pushed to the wall by a market-dominated economy. A caring society must show them compassion.”

Governments Intervene

The truth is that most Western economies are dominated not by markets but by government interventions in markets. If markets were free, no one would have the legal power to dominate anyone. The rule of free exchange would apply, namely that participants stand to gain from an exchange, otherwise they wouldn’t participate. In Frederic Bastiat’s words: “By virtue of exchange, one man’s prosperity is beneficial to all others.”

This rule is self-evident. Why would anyone wish to interfere with exchanges that are of such obvious benefit to the general welfare?

This brings us back to the role of government. Ideally it should be to maintain a peaceful society in which the citizens would initiate the exchanges from which a nation’s wealth is created. The fact that no society embodies that ideal is all the more reason why it should be not only envisaged but also set as the criterion against which societies are measured.

Since the quantities and kinds of exchanges in such an ideal society would be as varied as man’s ingenuity, it would be contradictory to limit them. What free men might agree to limitis their own behavior. Thus each would recognize the need to fulfill whatever contracts he was engaged upon just as he would expect his fellow contractors to do the same.

Here, then, is a legitimate role for government: to make and enforce laws (1) that require observance of contracts, and (2) that safeguard persons and property from encroachment.

Those two precepts—fulfilling contracts and refraining from encroachment upon other people or their property—are fundamental to a society of free people. They are fitting matters for a government to legislate because they constitute the underpinnings of a free society.

Moreover, such a society would encourage the self-reliance that forced redistribution policies have done so much to discourage. As Leonard Read pointed out in Accent on the Right: “The unprecedented practice of freedom in our country has, one might say, catapulted many millions of ‘the masses’—including you and me—into a state of affluence previously unknown to history. . . . The alleviation of poverty is a by-product—a life-saving benefit—along man’s way toward the higher ideal of liberty. . . . Restore and preserve the practice of free market, private ownership, limited government principles; and one of the by-products will be as much removal of poverty as possible.”

The self-reliance that delivers independence is inhibited by government interventions. The more that we can do to stem those interventions and move our societies toward free markets and private ownership, the more we shall help other people to independence.

Helping other people to independence is the true charity.