Real Charity

Recently, I was deeply touched to learn of a practice at our local high school. There are students in this high school who have little either in terms of family support or financial security. The faculty quietly identifies those young people and collectively ensures that they have a Christmas. This is all done behind the scenes, with no fanfare, and without any official bodies getting involved. Importantly, these students feel that someone cares and that this caring is genuine and heartfelt.

This is the essence of real charity. Thomas Jefferson wrote of charity:

I deem it the duty of every man to devote a certain portion of his income for charitable purposes, and that it is his further duty to see it so applied to do the most good of which it is capable. This I believe to be best assured by keeping within the circle of his own inquiry and information the subjects of distress to whose relief his contribution shall be applied … The question, then, is whether this will be better done by each of us appropriating our whole contributions to the institutions within our reach, under our own eye, and over which we can exercise some useful control. Or would it be better that he shall divide the sum he could spare among all the institutions of the state, or that of the United States? Reason, … certainly decide in favor of the former practice.

As Jefferson tells us, even the smallest bit of reason tells us that our charitable giving is best deployed in areas of which we have direct knowledge. In the high school example I gave, there is no bureaucracy to drain away the money, no one-size-fits-all rules that create distortions and disincentives, and there are no applications to file. In the end, everyone—giver and receiver—is enriched by this kind of charity.

One can’t help but contrast this real charity with a story that arose during the debate on the health care bill passed by the Senate last night. Lindsey Graham, a Republican Senator from South Carolina, was incensed over the provision added to the bill which permanently exempts Nebraska from paying Medicaid costs that all other states must pay. This exemption was the price of getting the decisive 60th vote of Nebraska’s Senator Ben Nelson.

U.S. House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, a Democrat from South Carolina, responded, “Rather than sitting here and carping about what Nelson got for Nebraska, I would say to my friends on the other side of the aisle: Let’s get together and see what we can get for South Carolina.” In other words, Clyburn’s remedy is to expand the circle of theft. This is not charity, this is not kindness, this is not compassion—real taxpayers pay for these backroom deals.

Clyburn is very familiar with the art of taking from taxpayers and giving to special interests– in Congress this is euphemistically known as earmarking. The Myrtle Beach Sun News ran an article that in tell us of some of Clyburn’s earmarks for special interests dear to his heart—his own family:

One is a grant to The African American Museum in Charleston, South Carolina, and the other was to a non-profit organization in Georgetown, South Carolina which was intended to find jobs for the poor.  Both of these earmarks for building projects in which the Congressman’s nephew was the designer. Even more problematic is a grant to the airport in Augusta, Georgia, to build an extension.  The lobbyist for the airport was William Clyburn, Jr., a cousin of Representative Clyburn.

For all I know, these may be worthwhile projects. But Jefferson’s advice is sound. Let, for example, the citizens of Charleston contribute to their own museum on a voluntary basis. If the project has regional or even national merit, voluntary fund-raising can be expanded.

The great 19th Century French economist Frédéric Bastiat wrote, “Government is the great fiction, through which everybody endeavors to live at the expense of everybody else.” Even more troubling, especially during this Holiday season, is that this fiction pits brother against brother:  Nebraskans against the rest of the United States, the needs of Clyburn’s relatives against the needs of our own. I would imagine that Clyburn’s remedy would be to tell us to lobby for our own relatives. But what if we don’t want to? What if appropriating other people’s money for our own benefit violates our sense of right and wrong? What if we want to be left alone and contribute to the needs of those of whom we have direct knowledge as Jefferson advised and as common sense dictates?

This Christmas, the Clyburn’s of this world are on the ascendancy. And as they ascend, real charity shrinks and real suffering increases. But as the faculty of our local high school demonstrates, human decency will always be alive.

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