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A Call to Libertarian Charity



A call to Libertarian charity
by Eric A. Bryant

Libertarians believe that the primary political vice is the initiation of force, fraud, or coercion to achieve political aims. As a result, we renounce the welfare state as an unjust system of forced charity. We do not believe (in terms of platform) that needy individuals have a right to be helped by the government or that other individuals have a political obligation to help them.

But does that mean libertarians should give to private charity? The answer is: Yes.

Libertarians should be charitable not because we have a duty to help those less fortunate than us. We should be charitable, ironically, for more selfish reasons. We should regularly give to charity in order to increase our membership and political influence, thereby bringing ourselves closer to the free society we want to live in.

How will mass libertarian charity further our cause?

Let's face facts. The majority of Americans -- whether liberal, conservative, or centrist -- support some kind of welfare state. They may differ on questions of size and scope, but the fundamental commitment to public assistance as such is still there. Many of these individuals believe wholeheartedly in freedom and support much of what our party stands for. But they are often put off when they hear our stance on eliminating the welfare state. Yes, they know the welfare state violates rights to liberty and property. Yes, they know that welfare promotes a "culture of dependency" among its recipients. Yes, they know that welfare programs are largely wasteful and ineffective. But unfortunately, these facts are not enough to persuade the average American to join us in fighting against welfare statism.

Why? I think there are a couple of reasons.

An American is a complex being in terms of social and cultural conditioning. On the one hand, he is a member of the most affluent nation on earth. He sees riches and abundance everywhere, and he knows -- at least subconsciously -- that America's prosperity has something to do with its free markets, its high degree of personal liberty, and the pride and innovativeness of its people.

This is the part that compels him to renounce welfare statism.

On the other hand, the average American also grows up in a culture with deep altruistic undercurrents which place a great deal of importance on taking care of those who cannot take care of themselves. Everywhere around him -- from the pulpit to the Pentagon -- he hears that his moral worth is inextricably tied to his efforts to help the less fortunate. This feeling is so entrenched in his psyche that -- though he doesn't feel wholly comfortable supporting government welfare -- he experiences a twinge of guilt for repudiating it (and often rationalizes that capitalism, at least in part, necessitates it).

This is the part that compels him to support welfare statism.

As a result, the average compassionate, libertarian-leaning American concludes that the Libertarian Party makes the most sense, but is chock full of heartless, selfish social Darwinists who'd let the poor starve in the gutters before violating the sacred principles of free market economics. Thus, our man maintains a secret allegiance to our ideals, but wouldn't be caught dead as a member of our (seemingly elitist) party.

So, if we want to further our cause, I'm convinced that we as Libertarians must be able to give an affirmative answer to the question: "If we got rid of welfare completely, who's gonna help the poor? Are you?" This is a legitimate question. And the cliched libertarian soundbite that private charity will do it sounds shallow and empty if the one making the claim does nothing to support private charity himself.

Libertarians should give to charity for the simple reason that people respond more attentively to actions than to coherent philosophical argument (although this, too, is important). We need to do more than advocate sound political theory; we need to show people that we really do care about the health, happiness, and success of our fellow Americans -- that we're not a bunch of cold, callous egoists possessing no regard for human frailty and misfortune.

If we do, more Americans will soften up to libertarian ideas, and we'll get that much closer to the libertarian nation we seek.

Libertarian Eric A. Bryant is a freelance writer in Austin, Texas.


What Gives? The Possibilities of Private Charity
by Phillip W. De Vous, Public Policy Manager   

With red ink predicted as far as the eye can see due to soaring state and federal budget deficits and with overall economic recovery still a hope to be realized, there is one area of the economy that is thriving despite all predictions to the contrary—private charity. According to Giving U.S.A.’s annual report, published by the American Association of Fundraising Counsel (AAFRC), Americans gave an estimated $240.92 billion to charity in 2002. Even more surprising, Giving U.S.A. reports that, in a year that was very hard on the corporate bottom line, charitable contributions by corporations and corporate foundations came in at $12.19 billion, an 8.8% increase over the previous year. The fact that charitable giving remains so high even while economic growth is so low runs counter to the arguments of many who advocate statist models of charity. Given the disparity between the dire predictions of self-interested stinginess employed by welfare state advocates and the truly expansive nature of American generosity, one is led to inquire: What gives? Contrary to the agitations of many on the political left, America is a generous nation, and as a matter of fact, the most generous nation in the world. While it is true that American culture is often overly materialistic, there is also a deep current of altruism that pervades the American character. Leo P. Arnoult, chairman of the AAFRC Trust sums up this spirit: “(Charitable) giving did hold its own in spite of reports of great difficulty in fundraising. Giving is still pervasive and broad, perhaps because our culture treats all philanthropic activity, even the widow’s mite, respectfully.”

It is this culture of respect for philanthropic activity, which is the concrete realization of people’s desire to assist in addressing legitimate charitable needs, that motivates the vast majority of charitable giving, Obviously, this remains true even when the “bottom line” is much diminished due to economic circumstances. This reality undermines the “selfishness thesis” that underwrites much welfare state advocacy. Most welfare state advocates have a low estimation of the potential of altruism, generally preferring schemes of income redistribution over individual charity in meeting the needs of people.

Given the pervasive and resilient character of American charitable giving, the present high levels of charitable giving point out the wisdom of further realizing in policy those incentives that would increase the ability of private charity to meet the needs of the common good. A policy agenda that recognizes the power of private charity could go far in strengthening the culture of respect for philanthropic activity that characterizes the citizenry of this nation.

Recognizing and incentivizing the power of private charity is absolutely essential in encouraging civil society solutions to our nation’s social ills. Back in April, one step in this direction was the passage of the CARE Act in the United States Senate. The positive—though paltry—measures proposed in this legislation would accomplish a great deal in bolstering charitable giving through the use of tax incentives. The Senate legislation allows non-itemizing taxpayers to take deductions for donations to charity and would allow older Americans to take a deduction for charitable gifts made from their retirement accounts.

Currently, the measure is stalled in the House of Representatives over a controversial provision that would force charitable foundations to spend more of their assets on an annual basis. Given the enthusiasm that the House leadership has shown in the past for incentivizing the funding entities of civil society, it remains unclear why they would needlessly attempt to micromanage an important source of private sector charity. Congressional intransigence on this matter could lead to harmful effects for philanthropy in 2003.

Despite more than two years of negative economic news, American charitable giving is at record levels, consisting of more than 2% of the gross domestic product of the United States. It is now time for leaders at all levels to reject the selfishness thesis that permits only the paltriest incentives for private charity. Adopting a pro-growth agenda for private charity will ensure, even in bad economic times, that individual generosity will remain a growing and vibrant sector of the U.S. economy.

Phillip W. De Vous is the public policy manager of the Acton Institute. pdevous@acton.org   


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