Virtue and Government-Compelled Charity
Recently, several of my colleagues from Vanderbilt Divinity School sat in on President Barack Obama’s conference call, in which he tried to persuade faith leaders that the nation has “a core ethical and moral obligation” to make sure that everyone in America has access to health care. The Show-Me Institute tries to remain focused on issues that uniquely impact Missouri, so I decided to withhold comment on this point. But, over the past couple of weeks, there has been a string of stories about Missouri religious leaders calling for the government to pursue health care reforms. I think it’s time I offered my own perspective.
I’ll start by saying that I agree that there exists a moral and ethical obligation to see to the well-being of our neighbors. As I noted in a speech I delivered a couple of months ago, this was also an opinion shared by most of our nation’s founders, and it bears no small significance for the approach they took in shaping our Constitution. As they were debating how the American republic should be structured, one of their major influences was Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws, in which the French philosopher described the attributes that must be cultivated for different types of government to be successful. In regard to a republic, virtue was deemed to be the most important quality that citizens could possess.
Virtue, as the founders understood it, was displayed when individuals willingly set aside their own personal interest and, fully understanding the risks and possibility of mistakes, voluntarily acted for the improvement of those around them. The virtuous person understood that they had a responsibility to assist their neighbors and community when the circumstances called for it, and they would not shrink from this duty. A major reason that the founders insisted on high levels of individual liberty was because they recognized that virtue could not exist without liberty. People may be compelled to take action that has a positive outcome, but if they do so unwillingly it is merely obedience, with no moral value. In the eyes of the founders, only a people free to make choices for themselves can truly be virtuous.
From a policy standpoint, this sort of virtue is the ideal way to try to address society’s challenges, for a couple of reasons. The first is efficiency. Private organizations, like private businesses, are more immediately accountable to the people giving them money than are government agencies. If a private organization is doing a poor job, people will simply quit funding that group and either identify or create another organization that will use their money more wisely. A government agency, on the other hand, does not face the same pressure because its funding is not usually dependent on its effectiveness. People are required to fund government projects regardless of whether they agree with them and regardless of whether they prove to be beneficial. Thus, private voluntary organizations have a much stronger incentive to become as efficient as possible.
The second reason that private virtue is favorable to government-driven charity is that government funding does not grow on trees. Every dollar that government spends is a dollar that will ultimately come from one of its citizens. And the consequence of that dollar going to the government is that the citizen cannot spend it on a good or service that will improve his own life — or, as the case may be, the lives of those around them.
This leads directly to the third reason that private virtue is favorable: It gives individuals a sense of personal investment in the causes to which their charitable dollars are flowing. When the government forces citizens to pay taxes, those citizens may have no clear idea as to how that money will be spent, and therefore they are unlikely to take any pride in or ownership of the programs they are funding. On the other hand, when people contribute to private charity — especially local charities — they are far more likely to take a personal interest in helping them to succeed.
For much of our nation’s history, virtue as expressed through private charity was a very important aspect of the American way of life. Alexis de Tocqueville, whose Democracy in America offered the definitive outside assessment of society in the early United States, was stunned to find the prevalence of voluntary associations dedicated to assisting the needy and accomplishing public goods. Indeed, this sort of voluntary philanthropic association remained the status quo through the 19th century and into the early 20th century.
Every once in a while, however, a disaster would arise that inspired Congress to dedicate taxpayer dollars toward recovery efforts. Especially early on, these efforts did meet with considerable opposition. My favorite example comes from when Davy Crockett (a native East Tennessean like myself) served in the House of Representatives. A bill arose that would have appropriated $20,000 to help citizens in Georgetown recover from a devastating fire, and Crockett voted in favor of the bill. At a later date, a similar bill was proposed. This time, Crockett opposed the measure — but he also offered to contribute a week’s worth of his own pay to the recovery effort. Asked about his reasoning, Crockett explained that after the first vote, one of his constituents had confronted him, reminding him that even if there was great cause for charity, it was the responsibility of the private citizens to provide it. As the constituent put it to the congressman, elected officials must remember that unless an expenditure was being made for the common good of all citizens, rather than the targeted subset of citizens toward which charity is directed, the tax money was not within the elected officials’ purview to give.
Precisely 100 years after Davy Crockett explained his opposition to federally funded charity efforts, Congress confronted with a much larger concern. In 1927, the Mississippi River overflowed its banks, killing hundreds, rendering thousands homeless, and destroying hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of property throughout the Midwest and South. Concern quickly mounted that private charity alone would not be able to address the needs of those suffering, and many in Congress believed that if any situation ever justified the application of tax dollars, this one did. President Calvin Coolidge expressed major reservations about allowing the federal government to intervene in the matter, but he ultimately acquiesced to the political pressure and signed the bill.
From that point forward, most lawmakers (and, increasingly, private citizens) took it for granted that the federal government should be able to require taxpayers to foot the bill for charitable programs of various stripes. This led to Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal,” which arguably prolonged the Great Depression, and later Lyndon Johnson’s catastrophic “War on Poverty.” Even though the American impulse toward private charity has remained present, private voluntary organizations have ceded more and more ground to government-driven charitable efforts.
And so this all comes back around to the current health care debate and the role being played by some religious leaders. Churches and other religiously affiliated organizations used to dominate the charitable scene in the United States. If someone was hungry, homeless, or otherwise in need of help, they would look to a religiously affiliated organization for help — which was good, because it allowed those organizations and the private individuals who supported them to live out the virtue that our founders believed was so important, and it kept individual citizens personally invested in their neighbors’ well-being.
Eighty years later, we should be very concerned that we now have religious leaders and people of faith — for whom acts of virtue should have an even higher spiritual significance — calling upon the government to do their charitable work for them. I understand — and share! — these leaders’ desires to see an alleviation of suffering in the world, but where charity, virtue, and morality are involved the means are every bit as important as the ends. A work that would have been good if accomplished as a result of funds and labor willingly given can itself become evil if accomplished with stolen resources and slave labor.
I hope that these faith leaders will realize that abdicating the charitable roles to which they have been called to a government that will accomplish its goals by compulsion is directly destructive of the virtue and moral development that should be their objective.