The Gift of Compassion: Christmas and Charity

Merry Christmas! I hope all of you are having a wonderful time with your friends and family on this joyous occasion. Having returned to my snowy, frigid home in Chicago, I feel a sense of relief to be spending Christmas with my family. I am especially happy to see the benevolence and generosity shown by the people of my community during this time of year. The beauty of Christmas is that it is a tradition of voluntary beneficence. The open-handedness shown by Americans during Christmas is a real act of charity and kindness. Even during times of hardship, Americans always find a way to be generous towards each other (though I particularly like receiving). Unfortunately, many people in our country mistake the welfare state as a form of charity in the same way that alms-giving is an act of goodness. This is not the case, as the government has used this sentiment to justify ever more spending on welfare programs that have done the opposite of their intended purposes. Private citizens aiding each other are far more effective at helping and showing a sense of compassion towards the poor than a bureaucrat sending someone a welfare check.

The first thing to recognize with the welfare state is that it is not charity. The government, in fact, has no capacity for charity. All of the money the government has is taken from us at gunpoint in the form of taxation. If you steal from someone and give the money to a poor person, that does not make you charitable. It makes you a thief, also know as a progressive. Real charity is earning your own money and voluntarily donating it to an organization or giving it directly to someone in need. Charity is voluntary in the same way that giving gifts to others on Christmas is a voluntary act of kindness. By advocating for more welfare spending, progressives are really asking the government to take more of other people’s money to spend on their moral posturing. This comes at a high cost to our country, which spent roughly $1.03 trillion on welfare programs in the 2011 fiscal year (or about as much as Obama’s holiday vacation). That is larger than the budgets for Social Security, Medicare and defense. Moreover, the ten largest welfare programs in the country have seen a 378% increase in spending over the last 30 years. Since January of 1964, when Lyndon Johnson began the War on Poverty, the federal government has spent $22 trillion on anti-poverty programs (in constant 2012 dollars). The results of all this spending is that the people who are supposed to benefit from these programs are objectively worse off.

Welfare programs tear away at the fabric of what holds our society together. Milton Friedman eloquently described how this happens, as welfare “has an insidious effect on the moral fiber of both the people who administer the program and of those who supposedly benefit from it.” The people who administer the program have a feeling of god-like power, as they hold the sustenance of welfare recipients in their hands. For those who receive welfare, they lose their human dignity and independence. They are kept in a state of child-like dependence by their welfare supervisors, and their capacity to make good decisions erodes over time, much like myself on eggnog. For example, single women with children receive more money for not working and not having a man in the house. This has led to the destruction of millions of families across America. The welfare system has created an incentive for women to become single mothers. It has also created neighborhoods where most people do not work. This destroys the accumulated job skills in a community, which leads to the children of welfare recipients going on welfare themselves.

While the recipients of welfare are provided for in terms of food and shelter, their drive to better their own lives is taken from them. Depriving human beings of their natural ambition is the perhaps the biggest act of cruelty that someone can enact on another. The welfare state provides an incentive for people to fail because it makes failure so comfortable. Private charity is much more discerning. Charitable organizations that help those in need have greater standards for those who receive money. They are all involved in helping the recipients improve their skills in the market so that they do not have to return for more money. They also distinguish between those who will benefit from receiving money, and those who will not. The welfare state does no such thing. In fact, the bureaucrats who run the welfare system fare better when more people are receiving government benefits. This is why private individuals helping each other is more effective than the welfare state, which does not have an incentive to actually solve the problem of poverty.

My favorite example along these lines is the case of healthcare. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, one of the primary sources of healthcare and health insurance for the working poor in Britain, Australia, and the United States was the fraternal society. Roderick T. Long explains the details of this arrangement in his article “How Government Solved the Health Care Crisis.” Fraternal societies were voluntary mutual aid associations. They were particularly popular among blacks and immigrants. Long explains that “the principle behind the fraternal societies was simple. A group of working-class people would form an association (or join a local branch, or “lodge,” of an existing association) and pay monthly fees into the association’s treasury; individual members would then be able to draw on the pooled resources in time of need. The fraternal societies thus operated as a form of self-help insurance company.” Private citizens were able to find a way to provide each other with health insurance without turning to the government for help. It was also at a very reasonable price. According to Long, “at the turn of the century, the average cost of “lodge practice” to an individual member was between one and two dollars a year. A day’s wage would pay for a year’s worth of medical care.” Could you imagine such a thing happening today? If healthcare were so cheap, what would we need progressives for? The government intrusions in the medical field has increased the cost of healthcare far beyond that of a day’s wage. However, the welfare state has not only increased the cost of healthcare, but it has pushed aside private arrangements. Fraternal societies are no longer viable due to the existence of Medicaid, Medicare and government regulations that heighten the barrier of entry into the medical profession.

While I was in university, I heard my peers admonish conservatives for wanting to cut social welfare benefits while also believing in private charity. The reason conservatives like myself are against the welfare state is because we believe in taking up the mantle of helping the poor ourselves, rather than having the government take more money from others. According to the book “Who Really Cares” by Arthur C. Brooks, conservatives donate more money and a higher percentage of their incomes to charity that liberals do. What a surprise! They also volunteer more time and donate more blood than liberals. Professor Brooks adds that “if liberals and moderates gave blood at the same rate as conservatives, the blood supply of the United States would jump about 45 percent.” If that were to happen, I suspect the STD rates would also increase by the same percentage. But I digress.

The reason progressives advocate so much for the welfare is state is because they do not have anyone in their lives who will help them when they are in need. Many of them come from unstable households and do not have a family that they can rely on. They want welfare for themselves, not because they are concerned with the poor. As someone who had a good childhood and has loving family who is willing to support me, I do not need the welfare state. I was not only raised to be independent, but also have the good fortune of having my family there to help me in a time of crisis. When the welfare state is in place, communities and families that provide support to people are less necessary.

A study was conducted at MIT to examine the crowding out effect of the New Deal on charitable spending. It found that “church spending fell by 30% in response to the New Deal, and that government relief spending can explain virtually all of the decline in charitable church activity observed between 1933 and 1939.” When the government provides more aid to people in tax dollars, it crowds-out private charity. It also makes the population more selfish and entitled to the fruits of their fellow citizens’ labor. The Christmas spirit is the antithesis of that.

On this occasion, you have the chance to give and enjoy your philanthropic efforts. Remember the feeling you have when you give on this day, because you can keep this feeling at all times through your own efforts, not the government’s. When you directly help those in need, you can enjoy the satisfaction of doing good in the world while preserving our freedoms from an ever-growing government. If each and every one of us shows the compassion and benevolence that we show on Christmas every day to the disadvantaged, we would have no need for a welfare state. We could celebrate our freedoms with our friends and family who would be there to support us during hard times. Have a wonderful Christmas with your loved ones and remember the happiness you have received and given on this delightful holiday.