Column on Charity and Coercion

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

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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