When Charity Becomes Suicide

Commenced Feb 4, 2007, by Ken Wear

How can charity harm giver or recipient? Can it have destructive consequences? We as a people are noted for our charity, both individually and collectively. While few of us willingly give to the extent of wrecking our own lives, I note the consequences of charity, often unintended, to both the giver and the recipient and assert: Our sense of charity is being abused, to our detriment, and weakens the fabric of our society. Hence the title.

In giving one-on-one or through our local organizations we have the warmth of personal contact and involvement and the results of our charity are obvious to us. And for many volunteerism is a way of life whether or not they possess the wealth to contribute money. Red Cross, Salvation Army, United Way: Opinions vary, but many of us are selective because of opinion or experience; while there are salaried personnel and administrative expenses, we know from publicity or experience where most of our gifts go. But what of the charity given through taxes, where we individually have no choice and have little hope of examining the consequences in the lives we wish to touch. How do the recipients of our charity spend their time and attention? Does it accomplish what we wish?

(I was intrigued by a corollary between individuals and nations; it is presented at the end of this essay.)

Private Charity Works; Charity Funded By Taxes is -- well --

When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and broke through the levees, driving out a population of hundreds of thousands, it was individual Americans who sprang to the rescue while governments (city, parish, state and federal) foundered and even hindered. Our charitable instincts have allowed governments to create bureaucracies that apparently can't function. Red Cross, Salvation Army and other private charities were invaluable, but all governments could do was throw money at problems while individuals performed their charities. And here, these years later, it is individuals who are dedicating their labor and money to help recovery of individuals and communities along the Mississippi coast and in the New Orleans area.

Individual Recipients of Charity in Our Communities:

In the past charity was a personal matter; taxes and government were not involved, and the indolent, as immediate objects of charity, could be spurred to activity. It is in the public interest to lend a helping hand where, through no fault of their own, citizens cannot supply their own needs. But there is danger of excess if people think of it as a right so they need not contribute, and we damage our republic when we allow it. With the instrusion of government we have, on our own shores, encouraged development of sub-cultures of dependence on government largesse.

Acceptance of public charity should never be a career path; yet, among New Orleans refugees from Katrina, it evidently was the career of many. Doubtless this is a microcosm of our country. What consumes their hours I cannot know, but each able-bodied and non-productive person who accepts charity as his right is a needless burden on productive people who contribute through their taxes.

1) We have children bearing children. Granted that many girls are abused at home and see motherhood as a means of escape; others, through lack of education, fail to reckon with the consequences of immature sexual activity; and others simply submit to the enticements of Nature. All are aware of government programs that help mitigate the consequences of unwise pregnancies. When I was growing up sex outside marriage was considered immoral; there was a stigma attached, as well as privately-supported homes for unwed mothers. True, the 'sexual revolution' that followed introduction of 'the pill' has relaxed the sense of morality, thus reducing the stigma of unwed motherhood; but the ready availability of government charity also reduces reluctance to risk pregnancy. Does not the availability of unearned income reduce the sense of personal responsibility and replace the drive for independence with a sense of entitlement?

2) Single-parent homes where fathers have abandoned their offspring. While many males rely on their females to assert morality and have no wish for involvement beyond the pleasure of the moment, the rules applied in extending government support to indigent mothers encourages fathers to absent themselves from mother and child, who then must rely on public charity. Many states have undertaken to force fathers to contribute to the support of their children, but in many cases the father is not identified (and perhaps unknown) and there has arisen a legal structure dedicated to obligatory support of their offspring as well as avoidance of responsibility.

3) Unemployment has many faces involving both deliberate and fateful causes. Many, through no choice of their own, are jobless, whether their choice of skills doesn't match the job market or the job market has shifted. Where their effort is directed toward remedy I exclude them from my remarks here. But many, especially if their skills do not command a wage they consider to be adequate, have no desire for self-sufficiency if support can be derived from public programs.

  • a. Where the return for labor barely exceeds the return offered by indolence, why would a person seek the commitment of time and toil to productive enterprise? The true minimum wage is zero; without a job, there is no wage. But if the person does not seek a job, there is unlikely to be a job offer. Our illegal immigration problem feeds off this lack of incentive for citizens to seek work where the return is marginal.

  • b. We pay a price. Indolence spawns crime and other ills as excess leisure time weighs heavily on idle hands and minds. We burden ourselves to offer charity that undermines initiative and self-reliance of recipients. And we burden ourselves with the cost of public safety in the face of drug trafficking, theft, murder and other crimes that are spawned by idle hands.

  • c. Why would you suppose criminals so often come from neighborhoods of the poor and dispossessed? It's not that there is no work -- witness acceptance of illegal immigrants by farmers and businesses needing hands. It's lack of incentive to seek the rewards of legal activity. But I am ill-prepared to discuss the myriad facets of crime.

    4) With advancing years many people shift their assets to their heirs so as to become eligible for public charity -- a deliberate shift from self-reliance. It smacks of theft: gorging at the public trough to sweeten the inheritance of their heirs.

    Corporate Recipients of Charity


    While many farmers struggle, without any form of government support, to provide an adequate living for their families, corporate farmers are guided in their selection of crops by subsidy programs, in the effort to maximize profit, rather than market forces of supply and demand. There may be justification during the early phases, while the infrastructure is being developed, of such as agricultural crops cultivated for motor or home-heating fuel. But, as the infrastructure develops the need for subsidy diminishes and all farmers, large and small, should be exposed to market forces. There is certainly little justification for such subsidies as corn when plantings are already inadequate to serve demand (albeit an artificial demand due to fuel ethanol programs).

    Minimum prices, correctly applied, may be justified to prevent a glut of a single product from bankrupting farmers, since they cannot know of crop selection by other farmers. Storage of products, where it is feasible, can maintain prices by preventing a glut, but prices need to be reduced as storage capacity is filled so farmers are encouraged to seek other crops. We have a network of agricultural extension agents; an obvious use for their time would be to maintain, in season, an accumulation of information on crop plantings so farmers may be advised what crops are being planted in an over-abundance.

    Price supports that guarantee our farmers competitive advantage in foreign markets undermine local effort in foreign countries. This is a major source of resentment of the U.S. by foreigners and is counter-productive in both domestic and foreign affairs. Not only does it rely on the charity of our taxpayers to fund the price supports, but foreign farmers are wholly justified in clamoring for reform in our price supports.

    There are owners of fallow farmland paid to keep their land out of production. Moreover, systems of allocations confer the right (which can be inherited or rented) to farm certain crops. Both practices are charity at taxpayer expense. Somehow it seems that paying citizens to be non-productive is at odds with notions of self-sufficiency and contribution.

    Off-Shore and Foreign Corporations

    Many corporations have moved their headquarters to off-shore tax havens in order to avoid taxes in this country; yet they enjoy the advantage of access to our markets. Simple logic tells us they no longer desire to be citizens of this country (regardless of the state in which they were incorporated). By law a corporation is considered to be a person subject to the same police, fire and other protections as any other individual person. But, in going off-shore, they have declared they have no desire to remain citizens of this country. There should be a price for access to our markets by manufacturers headquartered outside our country, regardless of the location of their production facilities, else they enjoy a competitive advantage underwritten by the charity of our taxpayers.

    I have written separately about free versus fair trade and the charity to investors. To skip to that, click here. Your BACK button can return you here.

    Foreign Aid: National Recipients of Charity

    Aftermath of World War II

    I think of the aftermath of World War I, when, after victory, we left Germany to recover as best she could and, too late, we recognized the folly of abandoning the vanquished to their own political leaders. There arose a demagogue whose personal ambition led to militaristic expansion of his personal power. After World War II we thought we had learned our lesson; both charity, in concern for vanquished peoples, and self-interest, in reintroducing a peaceful economy, led to massive post-war assistance; we also built military bases for our and NATO use and continue to staff and support them.

    However, our (government-controlled) charity was heavily influenced by domestic interests concerned for their own immediate profits in supplying industrial know-how and equipment to post-war Germany, France and Japan. Using our outdated tools (state-of-the-art tools at the time of their creation) we furnished newly-state-of-the-art tools (which were now more productive than our own tools). Since our older tools were less productive than their newer ones, the resulting competition resulted in depression (and in some cases fracture) of our own economy. We can see today the consequence of allowing our "captains of industry" the unbridled pursuit of profit -- the direct consequence of exploitation, largely by our own government, of our charitable instincts. (I have never inquired how our foreign aid was apportioned among individual citizens of those countries.)

    At the same time we spent our own resources to protect them from another threat from their east (which, granted, we felt in our own interest). NATO was created with our military garrisons on their soil with the dual objective (as I interpret events) of precluding re-emergence of a military dynamo and providing a bulwark against machinations by our rival to their east. But the umbrella of military protection we furnished, while it made possible manufacturing reconstruction for production of peaceful goods, also led to a spirit of dependence on us for protection: Let the Americans do it.

    I admit to being suprised there have not been public displays of resentments at us for occupying their land. But there were such undesirable side effects as their ignoring genocide in their neighborhood in the Balkans and their unwillingness to assist in other essentially police actions (either locally, through NATO, or through the UN). "Let the Americans do it; we'll pursue our own interests," even irgnoring internal threats created by immigration to overcome their worker shortage due to their newly-created sophisticated leisure.

    I think of modern France, which has yet to fully overcome the destruction of its best minds during their revolution two centuries ago. France, whose aging population has voted to itself benefits and restricted opportunities for its young while pandering to its elite, who sought to enrich themselves through corrupting Iraq's Oil-for-Food program. Their liberal government has undermined cooperative efforts, apparently forgetting there would be no France had not the Americans come to their aid in World War II. If the UN needs to stand firm in enforcing UN-endorsed sanctions against Iraq, let the Americans do it!

    Natural and Man-made Calamities

    I think of the tsunami that ravaged the coasts bordering the Indian Ocean. Charitable instincts gushed forth and that portion of the world was awash in funds and willing hands; governments pledged huge sums of money. And a rebel group in Indonesia perceived an opportunity to gain support for their cause in Aceh province; others saw opportunity to enrich themselves from unaccounted charity. I think it instructive that the United States alone among nations has been true to its commitment of money. And, when we suffered our Katrina and Ryan and Wilma, Germany alone diverted gasoline to help ease our shortages.

    I think of that Iraqi dictator who over the years again and again thumbed his nose at the United Nations with only empty threats from the United Nations. Whether we were right to take him down, only history will tell; there was at least some spine here. And, of our allies, France sought to protect him -- for profit. Let the Americans do it!

    I think of the AIDS epidemic in Africa, where several nations would not even admit there was a problem and were thus unwilling to address it. The United States is now criticized for not spending enough to ease the problem even though the United States alone contributes more to ease the problem than the rest of the world combined. Let the Americans do it!

    Many of today's nations receive our foreign aid. I have no information on who within any one nation actually receives and disburses the money. There are many dictatorships and few democracies; corruption is a way of life for much of the world. Are we fostering the rise to wealth of selected individuals as factories and infrastructure are developed, only to see that wealth squandered in self-aggrandizement? Are we making it possible for a ruler and his circle to live well while his subjects continue to suffer? Are we padding someone's pocket or are we helping a populance to improve its health or education or infrastructure? If aid is in the form of export of domestic production, whose local pockets are being lined? What of our ideals are being exercised by our charity?

    Commercial and Residential Development in the U.S.

    Granted it takes capital -- money -- to build a shopping center or apartment complex or factory or retail outlet or oil wells or transportation systems or freighters to ply the seas. In the past it was the nobility who possessed sufficient capital to undertake such enterprises. But in America we have no nobility, except as each person has through his own effort or efforts of his forebears accumulated wealth. But huge accumulations of capital some of our citizens do possess. Why do I mention this along with charity?

    Developers develop with a profit motive. Government reinsurace has enabled developers to build in vulnerable environments. Were construction designed to withstand the forces of Nature that can be reasonably predicted, it would be difficult to be critical. But development has been on flood plains that cannot be protected from flood, on beaches subject to wave surges from storms, in and near forests where foolish management creates opportunity for devastating fires, on hillsides where heavy rain causes massive mud slides, in marshlands subject to confiscation by environmentalists. Public charity subsidizing unwise development!

    Regarding Katrina and New Orleans, I will content myself with mentioning that money justified and appropriated for levee maintenance and improvement was often redirected to projects more to the immediate taste of politicians; I have no knowledge of the wisdom or importance of those projects. As for the channel dredged through the marshlands that exposed New Orleans to the fury of the storm, that was an engineering mistake, not misappropriated charity.

    Carbon Dioxide Emissions

    There can be no question Earth is warming, which it has done many times before; and there can be no question that human activities are contributing to the "greenhouse" gases in our atmosphere. I recently saw numbers indicating human activity was contributing something like 3% additional to the total carbon dioxide entering the atmosphere from natural causes. And I seriously doubt that science has rendered a true accounting for sources and sinks for atmospheric carbon dioxide; whether more or less than 3% we don't really know.

    In the international agreement to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, China, India and other developing countries were exempted from limits while the U.S. and Western Europe were required to take steps regardless of cost. When I reflect on the loss of manufacturing jobs in this country and the acceleration of that loss that increased domestic costs of our manufacture would have produced, I wonder at the sanity of politicians and diplomats who arrived at such an accord. Charity? Isn't it charity to accept domestic industrial upheaval to help our competitors improve their economies?

    I suggest someone question Brazil's damming of the Amazon River, converting forests that absorbed carbon dioxide into anaerobic decay of tree stumps that produces methane. I don't question their right to dam the river, any more than I questioned the Egyptians for the Aswan High Dam (which, incidentally, has altered wind patterns with a resultant decreased rainfall to the south and abandonment of farmland what had heretofore been productive).

    International Trade: Free or Fair

    I understand 'free trade' as being the unfettered, unimpeded, transport of goods across the border into the customer's nation. I take 'fair trade' as the owner of the goods paying all legitimate costs of moving his merchandise from his source to his customer. And I recognize a significant difference between 'fair trade' and 'free trade.'

    Unfortunately, in today's world, there are concerns for smuggling people, more often than not unapproved for entry, across that border. Moreover, there are concerns for smuggling contraband merchandise, either drugs or goods not meeting the safety standards of this country. There is need for security. I, for one, recognize the costs of security at the points of entry as part of the cost of entering this country or exporting to this country. And not demanding payment from the owner of those goods is an exercise in public charity because part of the cost of distribution is being paid by the taxpayers of this country. You might argue that the ultimate purchaser is the one being subsidized, receiving public charity; perhaps that is true. But, were the costs of security (or examination of product for safety) being paid by the owner before being offered to the consumer, an otherwise uncollectible cost would be passed on to customers at a truly fair price.

    The unfairness comes home to me when I realize that under NAFTA jobs were lost to Mexican and Central American workers, and our citizens have the twin burdens of taking lower-paying jobs, due to the flight of domestic industry, while paying higher taxes to support the increased needs for security at the border. Likewise, goods from China and other Far Eastern countries, whether or not meeting our safety standards, escape part of the legitimate cost of reaching customers in this country. Public charity! Who benefits from that charity? I suggest it is investors -- the least needful of charity -- who export jobs to low-wage countries in order to lower production costs to improve their competitive position and hence increase sales and profits. If the true costs of offering goods to our consumers included security costs and costs of compliance with the standads of this country in addition to transportation and import duties, then fairness would be restored to the competition between domestic and foreign manufacture. But the system is now badly tilted in favor of investors in foreign production.

    While I am delighted at the choices available to me at the grocery store, I realize many fruits and vegetables of foreign origin are produced using chemicals outlawed in this country for food safety or environmental reasons. Contamination of foods is unacceptable; again, costs of inspection of incoming foods are a legitimate part of the cost of those foods. Domestic tomato growers are forced out of business because Mexican tomatoes that escape safety inspection are cheaper at the grocery. Public charity! Perhaps we should do away with safety standards in this country so our farmers can compete; I, personally, favor adding to the selling price all costs of inspection before entry into this country.

    We recently had a rash of toy recalls due to production practices outlawed in this country. Earlier we had a rash of food poisonings and questions about safety of food ingredients from abroad. We are putting our citizens at risk, as well as exporting jobs, by failing to add costs of entry inspection and security to costs of distribution.

    Lack of respect for copyrights and patents confers on the pirate a cost advantage. Yet our government turns a blind eye to violations by Chinese interests, apparently for the purpose of encouraging free trade. Because of the genius of American minds we possess a vast array of riches in copyrightable and patentable form; yet these are squandered to the race for trade. Isn't this a perversion of charity to insist some of our citizens must forfeit their rights so other of our citizens (as well as the Chinese and investors) may profit?

    Industrial Capacity

    It should be obvious that, each time a manufacturer leaves the country, we lose not only that much industrial capacity but the skills of workers in that manufacturing facility. We may take pride in being the "arsenal of democracy" or the "bastion of freedom," but each time a manufacturer closes shop in this country, we have lost that much of our ability to wage war, which has been the backbone of our arsenal.

    Over the coming centuries, each community must pursue what it does best, else there will forever be distortions in trade. In time that will likely result in no one nation being in a position to impose the wishes of its ruler(s) on another nation. In the meantime, it is the ability to wage war that has kept what peace there is. Once we lose that ability, we will be subject to the whims of whatever majority prevails in the United Nations or its successor.

    Corollary Between Individuals and Nations

    Each organism, within its life span, has continuity: It comes into being, lives its span of time, and dies. Aside from physical size and complexity, we differentiate among species by how that span of time is used. Many simpler organisms simply reproduce, using what energy and supplies chance to come their way, but as we go up the chain to more complex organisms, necessities become more varied and the means of their satisfaction become more complex. Until, at the apex, intelligence allows leisure time to pursue objectives such as recreation, art, knowledge, wealth, power, charity, . . . And, if conditions become unfavorable, the organisms die.

    Leaders form a nation and its citizens use what intelligence they possess and what providence -- natural resources or the charity of others -- throws their way. As citizens prosper the nation prospers. Given right conditions their economies grow and their citizens mature until, at the apex, there is power and wealth that enables them to pursue objectives such as knowledge, art, charity, . . . While some nations prosper others, like simple organisms, have yet to provide their citizens with favorable conditions and continue to rely on providence; they make up the Third World. Unless conditions become favorable there is little likelihood they will grow and mature, and the cycle of Nature will be fulfilled.

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    It has become painfully evident we cannot trust our politicians with our charities since they seem unable to think beyond what lobbyists pay for. We need to be observant of the consequences of our charities, whether excessive generosity becomes national suicide.

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