Welcome back to a little discussion of Principles and Values. Today, we’ll look at number 7. (Two more to go)
“I work hard for what I have, and I’ll share it with who I want to. Government cannot force me to be charitable.” Immediately, you see what the image is squarely pointed at – government taking your money and giving it to someone else. It’s a plea for the government to remember The Forgotten Man.
Forgotten Man? You mean the downtrodden and destitute? Heh. How could we forget them? They’re always with us. People are always going on and on about how we shouldn’t forget the poor. They’re not forgotten. Who’s the Forgotten Man? What’s this principle really all about?
Let’s do a little unpacking.
We’ll start with the first part of the principle. I work hard for what I have. And the vast majority of people do. The first part of this principle is work. We should work for what we have. In Genesis 3:19, Adam is told that “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread…” And historically, that’s something that the US Government recognized and supported. In 1887, Congress passed a farm relief bill to help Texas farmers suffering through a drought. The president at the time was Grover Cleveland. Here, in part, is his response.
“I feel obliged to withhold my approval of the plan, as proposed by this bill, to indulge a benevolent and charitable sentiment through the appropriation of public funds for that purpose. I can find no warrant for such an appropriation in the Constitution, and I do not believe that the power and duty of the General Government ought to be extended to the relief of individual suffering which is in no manner properly related to the public service or benefit. A prevalent tendency to disregard the limited mission of this power and duty should, I think, be steadfastly resisted, to the end that the lesson should be constantly enforced that though the people support the Government, the Government should not support the people.”
It’s a good instinct to want to help. It’s understandable. Heck, it’s one that most people share. But things change when you do so under the aegis of Government. Why?
Back to Grover:
“The friendliness and charity of our countrymen can always be relied upon to relieve their fellow-citizens in misfortune. This has been repeatedly and quite lately demonstrated. 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.” (quotes from The Writings and Speeches of Grover Cleveland, available at Google Books. h/t to this book for the reference…)
What’s going on here? And what’s the deal with that Forgotten Man thing mentioned up there? Forgot him already huh?
Let’s talk about that Forgotten Man. The way I’ve always heard this illustrated is with cars. Three men live on a street. One of them is doing all right – getting by, and has a single car. One of them is not doing that well, maybe has a bunch of kids, and can’t afford a car. They’re struggling to get by. It tugs at the heartstrings of the first man. The third man on the street is doing very well – nice house, and TWO cars. Let’s say that the first man, out of the goodness of his heart, takes one of the cars from the man with two, and gives it to man with none. That’s charity, right? Of course not. It’s theft. And as grateful as the poor man might be for it, he’d be changing his tune a few hours later when the police show up, arrest our “Good Samaritan”, and return the car to the man it belonged to.
Let’s say now that the man with one car decides he’s going to lobby the government, and they write a bill that takes the car from the man with two and gives it to the man with one. What’s the practical difference between the two situations? The man with two has still lost his car against his will. The man with one car engineered the transfer of the car. The man with none now has a free car. There is no functional difference in the two situations, except for the imposition of the government. The forgotten man in this situation isn’t the poor man. It’s the guy with two cars – the man who pays.
Back to the principle. The part after work is this – “I’ll share it with who I want to.” I don’t want to imply that people shouldn’t share when and where they can. In fact, as a percentage of income, the man with two cars may have been been sharing a LOT. We don’t know, and it’s none of our business.
We’re taught in my religious tradition that charity comes from within – that it’s a pure love of others like the love Christ has for us. It implies a willingness on our part that is utterly absent when government takes it from us and distributes it to who they want to. And we might agree with where the money goes, or we may not. In some cases, we may disagree vehemently with where the money goes because the organization supports things we are diametrically opposed to, but we don’t get a say in it once the money gets in government hands. Also, as government takes more and more our ability to help causes we feel strongly about drops accordingly.
We do have a duty to help others as much as we can. It’s a duty that government cannot fulfill, because it is an individual duty, which has an impact on our individual salvation. Paul talks about charity, saying that no matter what his other abilities or gifts were, without charity, they didn’t matter. The verse that strikes home here is 1 Corinthians 13:3 “And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.”
The takeaway here is – without the necessary internal component, you can call it a “charitable donation” on your tax forms if you want. But without the love of others that prompts a willing sacrifice of your time, talents, and of course money, it’s just not charity. And no amount of government involvement will change that.