Tom Patterson: Private Charity

Bernie Sanders once announced, “I don’t believe in charities“. He dislikes the “fundamental concept“ of private citizens subbing in for government by helping those less fortunate or donating to causes they find worthy.

Sound like a cCharity-Jarrackpot? Many thinkers on the left agree with him. Eduardo Porter of the New York Times wrote that private philanthropy is “unaccountable to society“ because it is “unfettered by democratic controls and dictated by the preference of donors“.

Rob Reich of Stanford complains of the unfairness of donors earning gratitude when in fact they are nothing more than a “plutocratic voice in a democratic society“. “Philanthropy, if you define it as the deployment of private wealth for some public influence, is an exercise of power“.

Citizens trying to help others often run into resistance from officialdom. As recounted by Michael Tanner of the Cato Institute, an Elgin, Illinois man during a recent cold spell invited homeless people into his heated basement. But local officials shut him down, citing code violations that could “potentially“ result in inadequate light and ventilation or insufficient exits. You must admit those spaces underneath the bridge are well ventilated and have plenty of exits.

In Atlanta, people providing food to the needy got hit for “unlicensed operation of a food service establishment“. Many cities prohibit or limit sharing food in public. Organizations ministering to unwed mothers or runaway teens often encounter unreasonable zoning restrictions.

But those who believe charity should be left to the big boys-government-ignore the lessons of history that private sector charity dollar for dollar is far more effective than government in helping fellow humans. There’s a reason that America’s modern welfare system, the original Great Society, has failed to reduce poverty or to improve income inequality, in spite of the trillions of dollars well meaning Americans have poured into these programs.

Government provided entitlements are ineffective in changing the behaviors and mindsets that are the root causes of poverty. As the word suggests, entitlements are regarded by the beneficiaries as a right and entail no responsibility to improve or change.

In practice, government benefits often work to keep people mired in poverty. Single mothers typically receive benefits on the condition that they don’t get married or take a job. Their poverty is enabled and extended by government’s “help“. No wonder the results are so dismal.

Private sector charity is based not on entitlement but on personal compassion. Private philanthropies aren’t bound by bureaucratic and legal restrictions. They have a long history of conditioning the help they offer on giving up drugs, going to work and adopting other constructive lifestyle changes. Private charities may also use religious approaches to social problems which for many are powerfully and positively inspiring.

There is another key difference between government and individual philanthropy. Administrators of government programs want them to grow. Success is measured by the number of individuals in the programs. Many programs have significant budgets for marketing and recruitment.

Private sector charities measure success not by the size of the caseload but by the lives they are able to impact and the people they help to self-sufficiency. Long-term dependency is avoided if at all possible.

The great divide in modern politics is not between conservatives and liberals, terms which have been tortured out of any distinct meaning. It is between statists and individualists.

Statists believe that government rightly owns us and all that we possess. The only legitimate power is that of the collective. One’s political legitimacy derives solely from group membership. Individualists of course beg to differ.

Attitudes toward philanthropy, like so much else in public life, sit atop this chasm. Thus arises the indignation that an individual philanthropist would be allowed to exercise “power“, even in a good cause, since he illegitimately stole it from government in the first place. As Ted Kennedy explained long ago, it is government through “tax expenditures“ that rightly decides how much income each of us are permitted to keep.

Few would argue that charity can replace all government efforts to help the poor. But America has a long and glorious history of people successfully helping people. We would all be poorer if we forsake that heritage.