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Friday, April 19, 2019

True Generosity Involves Choice, Not Coercion

During tax season, when politicians have their own charitable contributions revealed, it can provide valuable insight into the credibility of their claims.

Michael Vadon [CC BY-SA 2.0 (]

When the tax filing deadline comes during a political campaign, it can be quite instructive. That is because many of those who are loudest in their insistence that other people must be taxed much more heavily to help others—that is, for charitable purposes—have their own charitable contributions revealed. And that can provide valuable insight into the credibility of their claims.

The reason is that, as Thomas Jefferson put it,

To take from one…to spare to others…is to violate arbitrarily the first principle of association—the guarantee to every one of a free exercise of his industry and the fruits acquired by it.

But while that problem haunts government “charity” pursued at others’ expense, our individual charitable activities violate no such ethical rules. In fact, they strengthen our ethical muscles. And government has long encouraged them via itemized deductions in the tax code. Yet, if we are generous with others’ resources (even when it is against their will) but not with our own resources, it brings into question whether it is really assistance for others or power over others that motivates their positions.

Politicians Don’t Practice What They Preach

So what did we learn about candidates’ charitableness? According to the Washington Post, for 2017 returns, Beto O’Rourke’s family donated one-third of 1 percent of its income to charity, Kamala Harris gave 1.4 percent (and none at all her first three years as California’s attorney general), Amy Klobuchar and Kristen Gillibrand each gave just under 2 percent, Bernie Sanders gave 3.4 percent (plus proceeds from a book), and Elizabeth Warren gave 5.5 percent. For people who advocate massive increases in what others will be forced to pay for government “charity,” that reveals a substantial amount of cognitive dissonance.

But that’s not how they see it. They torture logic to justify why those they “care” about, often including themselves, deserve your money more than you do. And they portray themselves as above such criticism because they “give” so much as critical cogs in advocating those (involuntary) transfers while asserting that opponents who object to proposed government tax and transfer “charity” are just selfish.

This issue means that Americans could benefit from revisiting the largely unknown “other side” to the coercive government charity argument. And few have provided that better than F.A. Harper, a Cornell University professor and member of the Mont Pelerin Society who helped start the Foundation for Economic Education, co-directed the William Volker Fund, and founded the Institute for Humane Studies. Consider an abbreviated version of what he wrote in Chapter 4 of his 1949 book, Liberty: A Path to Its Recovery, titled “Liberty and Charity.”

“One accusation above all others seems to have wide appeal…the charge that liberty means selfishness and a lack of the spirit of charity.”

“Is liberty…in conflict with charity? Is it proper to accuse one who asserts his right to the product of his own labor, together with rights to private property, of being uncharitable and totally self-seeking?”

“The right to the product of one’s own labor, and the associated right to keep it and to do with it as one may choose, is not in conflict with compassion and charity. Leaving these matters to voluntary action, rather than to apply compulsion, is in harmony rather than in conflict with Christian ethics…assistance given voluntarily and anonymously from the product of one’s own labor…is truly charity; that taken from another by force, on the other hand, is not charity at all, in spite of its use for avowed ‘charitable purposes.’ The virtue of compassion and charity cannot be sired by the vice of thievery.”

“’Political charity’ violates the essentials of charity…It is not anonymous; on the contrary, there is boasting about the process by the politician both in the form of campaign promises yet unfilled as well as by reminders during the term of office…to insure that the receiver of these fruits of ‘charity’ is kept mindful of an enduring obligation to the political agent. And the source of the giving is not from the pocket of the political giver himself…the wherewithal is taken by force from the pockets of others. And some of the amount collected is deducted for ‘costs of administering’ by the one who claims personal virtue in the process. All told, the process of ‘political charity’ is about as complete a violation of the requisites of charity as can be conceived.”

“Those who contend that the rights of liberty are in conflict with charity falsely assume that persons generally have a total disregard for the welfare of others …Evidence to the contrary is that the infant and the helpless members of the family, and other needy persons, do not ordinarily starve in a society where these rights prevail. The right to have income and private property means the right to control its disposition and use; it does not mean that the person himself must consume it all himself.”

“[There is also] the effect on compassion when welfare by force is attempted as a substitute for charity; when aid is no longer that of voluntary and anonymous donations from the product of one’s labor, for specific and known purposes.”

“Compassion is a purely personal thing. The body politic cannot have compassion. One cannot delegate compassion to a hired agent. Nor is compassion so cheap a virtue as to be practiced by the mere distributing of grants of aid taken from the pockets of others, rather than from one’s own pocket or from his own effort in production. A charity worker may be a kindly and lovable soul, but as far as compassion is concerned, he is only an employed person buying groceries and things for certain persons by using other people’s money.”

“When a taxpayer is forced to contribute to ‘charity’ in spite of his judgment of need, he will increasingly shun the sense of responsibility which is requisite to a spirit of compassion; he will lose compassion as he more and more accepts the viewpoint: ‘That is the government’s business!’”

“Advocacy of these rights of liberty is sometimes called ‘selfishness.’ ‘Self,’ if used in this sense, means the entire circle of the person’s family, friends, relatives, organizations—anything which this person considers worthy of help from his income or savings.”

“If ‘selfishness’ is to be charged against the one who demands the right to that which he has produced, selfishness of a far less virtuous order should also be charged against any non-producer who takes the income and wealth from another against his will.”

“If control of the disposition and use of income and wealth is to be called ‘selfishness,’ then it is unavoidable that someone act selfishly in the handling of everything produced. The question then becomes: Who should have the right to be selfish, the one who produced it or some other person? Is it selfishness to control the disposition of that which you have produced, but unselfish to control the disposition of that which you have taken from those who produced it?”

“For this argument to be accepted, one would have to hold that non-producers are better qualified than producers to judge the wise use of what is produced. He would have to hold that non-producers are somehow more virtuous than producers; that they have superior wisdom and conscience. He would have to hold that the taking away from the producer by force will not discourage him from production, since it is not possible to be charitable with something not produced.”

“If the members of the human race be so self-centered that they are judged to be unqualified to handle the use of what they have labored to produce, the advocates of ‘charity’ by force…must face an interesting question. How will it be possible to administer the program? Who can be found to operate a program of ‘wise charity,’ if that be true? If one could be found, by what respectable means could he be expected to gain his throne of power over all those supposedly self-centered dregs of humanity?…And finally, they should review carefully their starting assumption that justice and charity and selflessness can best be attained through giving legal or moral sanction to the taking by one person of the product of another’s labor by force. Whence comes the alleged superiority in the morals and wisdom of the taker–is it the result of his having engaged in the taking, or in gaining power over others, or from where? More reasonable is the assumption that proficiency in these respects is found in a person lacking in morals and wisdom.”

“Liberty is not in conflict with charity. More accurately, charity is possible and can reach large proportions only under liberty; and under liberty, ‘need’ for it would probably be greatly reduced.”

Currently, Americans are already more than knee-deep in campaigns that revolve in major part around proposals to massively scale up mandatory government “charity,” largely in search of the votes of intended beneficiaries. But seven decades ago, Harper answered the argument that charity required, or is even advanced by, such government coercion.

Liberty Is a Prerequisite for Charity

In his words, “moral considerations have no place except where liberty exists.” He demonstrated that while government coercion can create more “need,” it undermines charity. Further, he saw that coercion “justified” because it is deemed charitable by someone other than the one whose resources are used was a threat to liberty more broadly:

Liberty will be allowed in society only insofar as there is acceptance of the conduct of others…Tolerance in disagreement demands acceptance of separate domains within which a person is allowed to make his mistakes, if he does so with what is his rather than with what is yours. Private property within the economic arena of scarce and desired things operates to this end. Once these domains are accepted, then it becomes a prime moral right of a person “to do what I will with mine own” instead of to do what I will with your own.

  • Gary M. Galles is a Professor of Economics at Pepperdine University and a member of the Foundation for Economic Education faculty network.

    In addition to his new book, Pathways to Policy Failures (2020), his books include Lines of Liberty (2016), Faulty Premises, Faulty Policies (2014), and Apostle of Peace (2013).