Charity and ideology

Mona Charen

October 18, 1993|By Mona Charen

MICHAEL Kinsley, editor of the New Republic and jouster-in-chief with Patrick Buchanan on CNN's "Crossfire," /^ ought, when the time comes, to donate his brain to science -- because in those cells histologists will find the purest distilled liberalism.

Take this example. On one broadcast, Pat Buchanan had just finished asking why the "homeless" didn't resort to private charity instead of demanding still more government largess. "There are hundreds of church groups and other private charities offering aid," said Buchanan. "Why don't they take advantage of those?"

L "Because," sputtered Mr. Kinsley, "it would be undignified!"

Now, Mr. Kinsley is a terrifically bright fellow, so we can't chalk up that absurd remark to low intellectual wattage. No, when someone so smart says something so dumb, cherchez la ideologie.

Orthodox Marxists have always scorned private charity. Private giving vitiates the supreme role of the state as arbiter of who needs what and just how much.

If private individuals take those decisions into their own hands, a measure of power is bled from the state.

Kinsley is no Marxist, but as a good liberal, he retains some of the prejudices of Marxism. Let's look at those assumptions.

Liberals consider it "undignified" for beggars to accept private charity. The unspoken assumption is that there is some kind of begging that is dignified -- begging from the state. But that's a hard concept to sell. Most people throughout most of history have regarded dependency as dishonorable. Being "on the dole" was considered disgraceful. But liberals saw it as their special task to remove the ignominy from beggary. They changed the name of the dole, disguising it by the word "entitlement." It was more important to save the poor from disgrace than from poverty.

And they have succeeded all too well. Multiple generations of Americans have been born, lived and died on "entitlements," never knowing anyone in the family to earn a salary, while immigrants have poured into the country to take the low-paying jobs the welfare-dependent regarded as beneath them.

As long as a stigma was attached to being on the dole, there was a spur to self-sufficiency. Without it, as even Franklin Delano Roosevelt warned, the dolee becomes slothful and enervated. It's not that the poor are corrupt, it's simply that they are human and subject to exactly the same temptations as everyone else. It goes without saying that no civilized society should allow people to die of hunger or freeze in the cold. But we do the poor no favor by making dependency less shameful. If they need what used to be called "relief," they should take it. But they should not be proud to do so.

Liberal disdainers of private charity are also overlooking the important psychological interaction between benefactor and recipient which is part of private but not public charity. Christopher Edley Jr., former issues director for Michael Dukakis, and another museum-piece liberal, wrote in the Legal Times that he doesn't give money to beggars on the street. "I pay taxes for social workers to determine who is truly needy," he writes. "I don't want to judge whether this or that supplicant is deserving."

But who says the social workers know better? Moreover, the act of personal giving -- one human being to another -- is good for both. The donor fulfills one of the most revered and ancient dictums of civilization -- to feed the hungry and clothe the poor.

The recipient gets some genuine compassion along with the cash and perhaps even the desire to repay the kindness.

But Professor Edley (he teaches at Harvard) is worried. He fears to seek private donations for his son's school because "if we raise significant sums, will the central school authorities cut our school's budget?" There it is again, the transcendent faith in the central authority. If he really were able to raise "significant" sums, why should he care about the funds from the state? Wouldn't his son's school be better off, and isn't that the aim?

Sure it's undignified to ask for charity, and I would cry bitter tears if reduced to such circumstances. But when the poor stop asking and start demanding, their perpetual poverty is almost assured.

Mona Charen is on maternity leave. This column was first distributed in January 1990.

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