All Commentary
Sunday, September 1, 1974

What Is Philanthrophy?


Mr. LaDow, of San Diego, recently retired as a teacher of social studies in high school.

Since the state has, in our time, assumed the status of the chief philanthropic institution in the nation, it is well that we should re-examine the roots of the word, philanthropy.

Casual inspection of any dictionary gives us a definition: “Love for mankind; good will to all men;—opposed to misanthropy.” The source is, of course Greek: philos (loving) + anthropos (man). Older Webster Internationals gave “human being” as an alternative to the generic sense of “man.” Indeed, the Greek originators of the term used it either generically, or in the individual sense, as we do, from Homer onward. Liddell and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon informs us that Homer even used anthropos in referring to the dead. In considering philanthropy, it is important that we should distinguish between our use of the term, man, in the generic sense, or as indicating the individual; or as a collective or distributive noun. Do we mean, by philanthropy, “the love of mankind,” or “the love of human beings?”

This is no quibble. Technically speaking, Latin scholarship has demonstrated that ens (something) and unum are interchangeable terms, which may be predicated of one another, i.e., “one is something, or something is one.” To put it in ordinary words, anything which is not individually distinguishable may be imaginary; but it is not real to human perception. Not to keep this in mind is to make communication impossible. We don’t know what we are talking about. Only God, or his chosen ministers, could love mankind in the purely generic sense. Common sense also validates this truth. None of us ordinary mortals can realize love which is unapplied to individuals, whether it be God, self, another person, or any number of individuals. To love “mankind” is to be out of touch with reality, as far as human affairs go. Any affection must have an object.

Of course, it is possible to love a principle, such as humaneness or godliness, and one may fasten love upon anything imaginable. Anything possible to the mind of a person may be a real object of love — to him. But here we reach into the ineffable. Tragic though it may be, this must be a lonely vigil. It is out of the concourse of human philanthropy.

Look to the Individual

Practical philanthropy must look upon anthropos (man) as a distributive noun. In so doing, it cannot look upon people as members of classes, races, or any other form of collective entity, except in an accidental sense. For this very good reason, the Goddess of Justice is blind. Justice is even-handed. Each person must stand, equal and alone, before the bar. Quotas or class discriminations have no place here, pro or con. Genuine philanthropy requires that each individual receives the love and treatment he deserves. To do otherwise is to rob the more deserving.

One must be blind indeed not to recognize the difference in quality of persons. Also, he must see that such differences exist without regard to race, class, sex, or any other generic classification. Discrimination with regard to such individual differences is the first requirement of survival. One should not marry a murderer or employ a thief, regardless of what other categories might fit such persons. It is unlikely that one could love without the capability of hatred, or even know the difference. The viability of any society rests on the quality of discrimination shown by its citizens. By shunning the evil and rewarding the good and productive, they educate one another. Where this process works well, the need for police is minimized.

Citizen acts of terrorism (extreme misanthropy) are inevitable signs of ubiquitous government. When the state absorbs moral control, the moral controls of society become powerless. Most persons do not care, nor do they dare, to intervene in a drama in which they are not cast. People only love and tend a society of their own voluntary making, as demonstrated by the widespread decline of patriotism. Even the resort of the young to communes is part of this alienation. Lack of respect for parental and other authority, including business leaders, is functionally connectable to their acceptance of the state as patron. Although the vigilante spirit and lynch mob are not unknown to self-policing society, the inevitable arising of terrorism in the police state, apparent worldwide today, is vastly more terrible and destructive of the philanthropic spirit.

The Greeks Had Two Words

Collectivizing anthropos did not begin with Karl Marx. As pointed out, the ancient Greeks were somewhat ambiguous with the term. Plato’s leaning toward the Spartan model is well known. Paradoxically, Marx admired Aristotle, who was systematically critical of Plato’s collectivist system of “ideas.” Such disparate thinkers as St. Augustine and Rousseau contributed to the intellectual collectivization of man. But, in the past hundred years the process has accelerated to the point where very few intellectuals seem to understand clearly that a person is an individual. Hence, the bio-chemist, Roger J. Williams has found it fitting to remind us, in his recent book: You Are Extraordinary.

Since this mental aberration has spread worldwide, it is difficult to find living examples of a society of responsible individuals larger than a household.

The ultimate excuse for the politicization of philanthropy is that society has grown too complex for individualism to be counted. As Leonard Read has pointed out, this argument is false, both in fact and logic. The division of labor in industrial society has placed burdens of responsibility on the individual beyond any comparison in history. Likewise the part which each individual plays in the economic world is vastly simplified by business organization, upon which government is mainly parasitical. Whenever the political managers get sufficiently fouled up in sharing-the-wealth programs and directing our lives, they indicate that they know where the skills are by calling businessmen to Washington to straighten out the mess.. Anyone should know, by now, that politicians are the last persons who should be allowed to control an economy, especially in the name of philanthropy. The increasing complexity and differentiation in the ways people exchange goods and services indicate a need for greater decentralization; not for further centralization of power. Big business recognizes this by increasing resort to sub-contracting factors in production. Government, on the other hand, becomes more centripetal by the hour, in power and function.

The hoary nineteenth century fear that corporate monopoly must inevitably destroy opportunity for the individual entrepreneur is still parroted by charlatans and the ignorant; but anyone who troubles to look at the facts will see that small business flourishes as never before. Government, itself, is the one true monopolist. Hence the whole antitrust machinery of government, aside from cases of real fraud, is counterproductive, representing a needless ultimate added cost to the consumer and taxpayer. This imposition is vastly aggravated by the failure of politicians to apply the same standards to labor unions in “restraint of trade” which are so grievously, if unevenly, applied to corporate business. In this, as in the whole field of government control of private exchange, politicians can lay no claim to philanthropic function. The bill for their power-struggle is an onerous burden placed on the fundamental anthropos: the consumer. Together with government-made inflation, this is clearly reflected in a galloping rise in the price structure: a strange philanthropic outcome!

The System at Fault

It should be needless to point out that these strictures on the heartlessness of government “giving” are not intended to apply to any particular member of the bureaucracy. Truly philanthropic individuals may be found in any system. No doubt there are humane guards (so far as they are allowed to be) even in Russian prison camps. However, there is a basic misanthropy in any nondiscriminating system of collectivism. Not to recognize the uniqueness of the individual is a mark of indifference, if not hatred. As any observant cowboy can tell you, there are even personality differences in a herd of cattle. This writer has also encountered members of the bureaucracy discussing among themselves its heartlessness toward beneficiaries.

There is no way in which government can be philanthropic in the distributive sense. Abjured by the most basic rule of law that public funds may not be appropriated to private benefit, it must see that its beneficences are only applied on a categorical basis. One must fall within the parameters of an abstract class in order to enjoy any one of the benefits. Since, in real life, few persons fit into neat categories, either in their needs or deserts, anyone who has dealt with the public bureaucracies has felt the twinge of their uneven performance. Even necessary criminal laws often present the face of injustice in their enforcement.

This may be borne; but heartless philanthropy is a contradiction in spirit which must be offensive to anyone with sensibilities. Since the whole charade of government philanthropy has been built upon the assumption that private charity is demeaning, it is an exercise in futility. In private charity, one is, at least, looked upon as an individual. Furthermore, he knows that any gift is voluntary and not wrested from someone else by force.

Health Care Intervention

Governmental intrusion into health care is another example of philanthropic futility. Coincidental with the development of Medicare and Medicaid have come skyrocketing costs of medical services. Anyone acquainted with the law of supply and demand will know the relation of the former to the latter phenomena is causal. Public goods have the attraction of free goods and invite over-consumption of scarce resources. As it happened in England, liberal politicians now are urging a national health program. Having made health care too expensive for the average citizen, government now considers taking the whole responsibility out of his hands. Not only would this hamstring individual judgment and genuine philanthropic action in one of our finest professions; but the quality of service and cost to the ultimate consumer would fall and rise (respectively) in dramatic fashion. The costs might be hidden in taxes or inflation; but they would be there to all but the indigent. In quality of care and other costs of living, even the indigent would suffer from such an un-philanthropic move. The economic shambles of England‘s welfare state should be warning to us in following her march toward totalitarian controls.

Since Protagoras and Aristotle, realistic philosophers have agreed that “nothing exists apart from particulars.” So, in philanthropy, they have recognized that there must be a particular giver and a particular receiver in any real philanthropic act. Of course philanthropists may act in concert, and may even be enclosed as the “fictitious individual” of incorporation. However, private philanthropy, however organized, has the magic ingredient of free and willing donation. Each individual volunteers his contribution to the benefaction. Each person who benefits may know it as a freely given gift. Just as there is no love but particular love, there is no philanthropy but the private kind of free and willing exchange. Widespread recognition of this truth is evidenced by the happiness with which private philanthropists go about their work and the generally gratifying nature of all their relations. The dreary bureaucracy of public charity stands in sharp contrast, as it always has.

He who loves everyone, in truth loves no one. No institution is, of itself, capable of love. It seems unnecessary to point out such evident matters.

However, the recent lack of sophistication concerning ontology and etymology often finds one in a state of wonder. As Albert Jay Nock noted so many decades back, people are losing touch with reality. They can be convinced that government can be philanthropic, even when its record is documented with the grossest swindles, inequities, and down-right absurdities. As Nock pointed out so simply, “No nation can afford to support all its idle people.” By putting us into huge debt and inflating the currency, our politicians have attempted to do just that. At the same time, phenomenal growth of private philanthropy indicates the failure of their efforts. (Were they successful, it should be “withering away,” like capitalism, in the Marxist model.) That private philanthropy is still so robust is an earnest of the spirit of the American people. There is no doubt of their widespread philanthropy. Let us order our politicians to give philanthropy back to the people. Only they know how to use it. Only they can even exercise it.  


  • Mr. La Dow of San Diego, is a retired teacher of social studies with an ongoing concern for maximizing the freedom of the individual.