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Counterfeit Charity

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In Frederic Bastiat’s words, “Man is a sentient being.” He expresses traits of concern and sympathy for his fellow sojourners on this earth. He cares for the less fortunate among his neighbors. In a world pockmarked by violence, tales of sacrifice overwhelm tales of terror, although the latter tend to be recounted more fully in history books.

Americans have taken this natural tendency to look out for one’s fellow man to new heights. Let there be a cause, and Americans will come riding to the rescue, with food, clothing, medicine and shelter, not to mention personal service and individual sacrifice. Indeed, one could make a case for Americans being the classic suckers for a hard-luck story, but that is part of the humane and national charm of this character trait: better to be fooled twice than to miss an opportunity to help someone in need.

Hence, it may seem unseemly to criticize this laudatory attribute; it may even appear to be “un-American” to point out that the current emperor of charity has forgotten his pants. But there it is, boldly etched before us for all the world to see: true charity has been submerged, and a marauding counterfeiter has taken its name and place, hauntingly like a science-fiction novel where alien beings co-opt the bodies of earth creatures and work their savagery in dark and secret ways. Much of what passes for charitable activity these days suffers from either one or both detractions which render the ultimate act anything but charitable. Let us examine first the external, then the internal, masquerader in turn.

Charity and Compulsion

First, charity today is marred by the almost universal tendency to employ compulsion to achieve the putative good end. Someone sees — or creates — a need: homes for the homeless, food for the hungry, care for the elderly, salvation for the malignant. Never mind that these problems (1) have been with mankind always, and (2) may have a genesis and a motive power quite beyond the power of mere mortals to repair. Assume the best of intentions of the zealot who discovers a good cause: he or she wishes to eradicate the problem and promote a better life for the recipient or beneficiary. What so often occurs today, unlike the early times of our nation, is that the inventor of the problem sees only one solution: petition the state for appropriations and participation in alleviating that problem.

Homeless teenagers selling themselves on the street for sustenance? Demand that the county commission buy or build a shelter home, supply food and sundries, and employ counselors. Forests departing under the woodsman’s ax and the homebuilder’s hammer? Call upon the state land development commission to condemn private properties into the everlasting pristine purity of the modern greenbelt. Foreign lands ravished by warfare or crop failure? Petition Congress to pass more laws, purchase food and drugs, and send them forthwith to the needy abroad. The list is endless and disheartening.

There was a time, in my grandfather’s day, when men and women recognized that the individual response was and is always superior to the institutional one. They had the needy, disabled and less fortunate with them then as now, but they handled the matter in a much superior fashion: neighbor helped neighbor, friend helped friend, stranger helped stranger, through privately organized and executed activities designed to search out the root cause of the problem and to solve it individually and without coercion!

Contrast the modern counterpart. Here the shopworn label “advocate” surfaces with annoying regularity, employed as a ruse to obscure the reality of the plunder society. Thus, an “advocate for the homeless” does not describe someone who gives of his own means and efforts to alleviate the woes of the single mother, the unemployed father, or the abandoned child; instead, it describes a person devoted to convincing and cajoling government hacks and toadies to spend someone else’s money and to limit someone else’s rights of free action, all in the name of the grand cause currently championed by the self-styled “advocate.”

This first, more general, counterfeiter of modern charity can be summed in the phrase malevolent means. Leonard Read often praised Emerson’s dictum that “the end preexists in the means, the bloom preexists in the rose.” Evil means can never beget good ends. No matter how well-meaning an individual may be, no matter how pure his motives and how sanctified his proposed program, no matter how needy his recipients or how great his cause, evil begets evil, and it is purely wrong to steal from another human being. Make no mistake about it: a theft occurs on each and every occasion when a group of men and women decide to take property owned by another, unwilling being and dedicate it to the claque’s chosen cause. In each such instance, an individual or a group of individuals has taken a little bit of the rights and life of another singular, sacred being. Each such incursion deprives the victim of a portion of his very humanness, the right and responsibility to make choices and to live with the results.

The inherent wickedness of theft does not magically disappear when accomplished by men and women following manmade rules called “law” or achieved by a majority styled a “democracy,” nor is it mystically converted from evil to good by the nature of the purpose to which the stolen property will be committed.

Justice demands respect for free, individual choice, obviously including the choice of the use of the property produced and/or owned by the subject. Justice crumbles from the little chips, the tiny justifications, the seemingly insignificant exceptions to the general rule.

Consider this. The usual justification offered by the charitable counterfeiter: “I am the proxy for one whose need is great, and you can well afford the pittance I am transferring from you in the name of this good and mighty cause.” Other common guises ring familiar: “You won’t even feel this”; “If you were a good human being, you would do this yourself”; “This is your Christian duty.” Each bland proclamation obscures perfidy and mocks justice.

No need or cause is sufficiently great or moral as to justify the perversion of the moral private property order or an incremental assault upon the citadel of justice . No person knows better than another how best to use the latter’s property or how properly to live the latter’s life. No individual possesses any moral right under any cognizable theory of morality to direct so much as a peppercorn of another’s destiny. Away with those who employ empirical or utilitarian arguments against invasions of private property — such raids are morally repugnant under any reasonable and responsible construct of right-and-wrong, and nothing more need be said!

Means and Motives

Second, modern “charities” are often assailed by another, internal but equally hideous, counterfeiter, the brigand of malevolent motives . Motive clearly is an elusive word conveying a similarly elusive thought: after all, man is an incredibly complex being, one which operates in a universe of ordered complexity beyond his ability to fully comprehend, one which makes his decisions premised upon an individual subjective value system. Most of us could not sit down, even in a quiet time and place, and analyze all of the interwoven values and motives which forge and presage any particular choice we might make. This is part of the very essence of our individual nature and our individual right to freely choose, subject only to our ultimate accountability for the consequences of those choices.

How then do we ferret out motives for individual actions, let alone condemn them as evil or wrong? By observation of word and deed. By observing what doers say about their actions, and by what they do, and by then analyzing those words and deeds against the tapestry of right and wrong. Governed by this test, I suggest that malevolent motives drive many of the so-called charitable impulses besieging the American public today.

Look at common, popular causes labeled “charitable” today. Many, perhaps most, of the prominent actors on our modern charitable scene seek fame, praise, and promise for themselves far more than they seek solace, help, or salvation for the purported beneficiaries of their words and deeds. All too often, men and women participate as an instigator, a director, a trustee, or a volunteer of a non-profit, eleemosynary organization primarily as a means to increase their business contacts, as a steppingstone to public office with its open larder and revolving doors to personal power, as a publicity device to gain fame or notoriety, or to please someone else — a client, an employer, a politician, a “contact” — who in turn will provide material and visceral gain to the doer-of-good-deeds. Too few see a need and fill it solely for the purpose of helping others less fortunate. Too few act out of compassion rather than acquisition. Too few emulate Peter the Hermit; too many ape Walter the Penniless. How often have you noticed business organizations or professional partnerships demanding that their young associates gain memberships on specific charitable boards “to meet the right people”? How often have you observed that lucrative public contracts go to those persons who can demonstrate laundry lists of “approved” charitable activities? And, how often do you find out that such “appropriate” organizations spend a great amount of money on “administration” and posturing, and precious little on the proclaimed needs?

Where malevolent motives dominate charitable giving, true charity suffers. Of course, some good flows to recipients in spite of the motives of the promoter, but these ends are necessarily tarnished by motives as well as means. For example, concerns which purportedly generated the vaunted War on Poverty have increased dramatically despite the compulsion of many laws and the expenditure of many dollars. The beneficiary views the largess as his due or entitlement; the coercer/instigator augments his fame, fortune, and power; and the payor — the unwilling citizen or taxpayer in most instances — comes to disrespect the law, envy the recipient, and emulate the coercer, thus breeding more counterfeit charity until a version of Gresham’s Law kicks into high gear and drives true charity from the scene.

Malevolent means and malevolent motives are certainly not strangers to one another.

One whose primary motive is self-betterment at the expense of others under the mask of commercial goodness is much more likely to eschew fundamental ethics in favor of avarice and theft; so much the better, if that greed can be sated under the guise of the law perverted. The person who sees plunder as an acceptable way of life will normally possess malleable morals where the end justifies the means, and where both the less fortunate and the unwilling can serve as handy tools for self-aggrandizement. While various words can describe these people and their actions, “charitable” is not among them.

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    Ridgway K. (Dick) Foley Jr., an appellate litigator, practices law in Oregon and resides in Southern Arizona.