Saturday, February 21, 2009

Charity and Coercion

Tibor R. Machan

If one is concerned for the helpless or homeless or otherwise needy, what is the proper response? Just today someone I deal with nearly every other day told me he saw "Sicko," the Michael Moore "documentary" and was very upset that there are many homeless people who don't seem to receive medical help. Ordinarily this individual isn't very eager to go out and rob Peter to "help" Paul but in such cases he was ready to cheer for government support for those in dire straits.

I was very disappointed by the quality of the thinking exhibited by this individual. Despite our having known each other for over a year and discussing these kinds of issues on innumerable occasions, the emotional response to "Sicko" seems to have clouded my pal's judgment. He offered no discussion of how these folks got themselves into their dire straits; nothing about whether private charities could help; no mention about whether he himself ought perhaps to dip into his own resources instead of advocating expropriating from others, nada. The emergency nature of what "Sicko" depicted--of course, with little discussion of alternatives in the film itself--seems to have blinded my pal to any need for upholding the rights of those whose resources would be raided so as to satisfy his sentiments.

It all brings to mind this great remark by Herbert Spencer: "Sympathy with one in suffering suppresses, for the time being, remembrance of his transgressions….Those whose hardships are set forth in pamphlets and proclamations in sermons and speeches which echo throughout society, are assumed to be all worthy souls, grievously wronged; and none of them are thought of as bearing the penalties of their own misdeeds." (Man versus the State, p. 22) Somehow when sentiments rule, never mind about any prohibition of slavery or involuntary servitude. People who look with great sorrow and outrage at America's history of slavery, as well as slavery around the globe and throughout human history, seem to throw their principles aside and endorse the very thing they supposedly consider so dastardly because they believe that the deplorable conditions of some people's lives need to be remedied no matter what!

Some time ago I wrote an essay in which some of this was discussed at length and the following applies here particularly aptly:

"The virtue of generosity is a character trait that inclines one to extend oneself toward benefiting others in a spontaneous fashion, except for some of its more remote manifestations—i.e., through institutions. Generosity is a virtue when its development and practice is a matter of human choice. As such it requires the presence of a community in which the sovereignty of individuals is granted and respected. That sovereignty, in turn, implies the institution of the right to private property since to make decisive and responsible choices a person needs to act within a determinate realm of nature, a realm—great or small—within which he or she alone governs or chooses what will happen.

"Unless there is widespread voluntary acknowledgment of such sovereignty and suitable conduct that accommodates this, a community must at least have this sovereignty of individual human beings vigorously protected. This is necessary for any virtue to flourish, but especially for generosity because of its involvement with the disposition of what persons own, including their labor, skills, property, time, etc.

"There remains only one point to be covered, rather briefly, namely, whether governments themselves would ever be morally obliged to be generous. Would this not undercut their own rather particular mission of maintaining and preserving justice? Would it not make them into wealth-redistributors and thus instruments of regimentation of human action which would impede the possibility of individual and voluntary social virtuous conduct? Furthermore, if governments need to remain scrupulously fair in the performance of their primary mission, how could they remain fair while also extending themselves generously to­ward some people in society? If the duty of fairness is so vital in government, and if generosity consumes resources and extending it would generally involve favoring some citizens over others, would not all cases of generosity involve some breach of duty?"

Despite all this, it seems that for many people just feeling--former President Clinton's "I feel your pain"--for the helpless or homeless and then advocating government action in behalf of them suffices to feel morally virtuous. Sorry, that just won't do.

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