The following article was originally published by the Capital Research Center in June 2000 under the title “Charity and the Next President.”
“Taxation,” said Oliver Wendell Holmes, “is the price we pay for civilization.” But a much better case can be made that taxation is actually the price we pay for the lack of civilization. If people took better care of themselves, their families, and those in need around them, government would shrink and society would be stronger as a result.
The triumph of persuasion over force, people helping people because they want to and not because government tells them they have to, is the sign of a civilized people and a civil society. For all people interested in the advancement and enrichment of our culture, this is a crucial observation with far-reaching implications. Cultural progress should not be defined as politicians taking more and more of what other people have earned and spending it on the people’s alleged behalf. Genuine cultural progress occurs when individuals solve problems without resorting to politics or politicians.
The next president of the United States should not busy himself with intricate plans to spend public money for charitable causes or to direct private benevolence through carrots or sticks from Washington. If he were to depart from the custom of recent decades—the custom of championing federal assistance over private initiative—he would help immeasurably to rebuild American civil society.
When the French social commentator Alexis de Tocqueville visited a young, bustling America in the 1830s, he cited the vibrancy of civil society as one of this country’s greatest assets. He was amazed that Americans were constantly forming “associations” to advance the arts, build libraries and hospitals, and meet social needs of every kind. If something good needed to be done, it rarely occurred to our forebears to expect politicians and bureaucrats, who were distant in both space and spirit, to do it for them. "Among the laws that rule human societies," wrote Tocqueville in Democracy in America, "there is one which seems to be more precise and clear than all others. If men are to remain civilized or to become so, the art of associating together must grow and improve. ..."
A half-century after Tocqueville’s visit, President Grover Cleveland vetoed a bill that would have appropriated $10,000 in federal aid to assist drought-stricken farmers in Texas. As was his habit, he used the occasion to educate, to reinvigorate the principles that made America the greatest and most generous nation in history. He stated in his veto message that “. . . the lesson should be constantly enforced that though the people support the Government the Government should not support the people. The friendliness and charity of our countrymen can always be relied upon to relieve their fellow-citizens in misfortune. . . . Federal aid in such cases encourages the expectation of paternal care on the part of the Government and weakens the sturdiness of our national character, while it prevents the indulgence among our people of that kindly sentiment and conduct which strengthens the bonds of a common brotherhood.”
Cleveland rallied the nation and in due course, Texas farmers received ten times in voluntary assistance what the vetoed bill would have given them in public money. That’s the role I advise the next president to assume—the lofty role of a leader who persuades and inspires, not the ignoble role of a headline-grabbing redistributionist who launders other people’s money through a federal bureaucracy and takes credit for passing out what’s left.
It ought to be obvious today, with government at all levels consuming a whopping 41 percent of personal income, that many Americans don’t think, act, and vote the way most of their ancestors did in Tocqueville’s day or even in Cleveland’s day. So how can we restore and strengthen the attitudes and institutions that formed the charitable foundations of American civil society?
Certainly, we can never do so by blindly embracing government programs that crowd out private initiatives or by impugning the motives of those who raise legitimate questions about those government programs. We cannot restore civil society if we have no confidence in ourselves and believe that government has a monopoly on compassion. We’ll never get there if we tax away nearly half of people’s earnings and then, like children who never learned their arithmetic, complain that people can’t afford to meet certain needs.
We can advance civil society only when people get serious about replacing government programs with private initiative, when discussion gets beyond such infantile reasoning as, “If you want to cut government subsidies for Meals on Wheels, you must be in favor of starving the elderly.” Civil society will blossom when we understand that “hiring” the expensive middleman of government is not the best way to “do good,” that it often breaks the connection between people in need and caring people who want to help. We’ll make progress when the “government is the answer” cure is recognized for what it is—false charity, a cop-out, a simplistic non-answer that doesn’t get the job done well, even though it makes its advocates smug with self-righteous satisfaction.
The next president can do our nation a world of good if he understands the indispensable role of voluntary charity in a civil society, and then communicates the vitality of that message in both word and deed.