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Lawrence Reed Columnist

Published Thursday, October 11, 2012

Private charity or public welfare?

Should the federal government take care of the needy? In spite of a $16 trillion national debt, most Americans would probably say “Yes” in response to that question. But for most of our history, Americans would have been puzzled that anyone might ask such a question and would have responded with an emphatic “No” if they did.

Was that because our ancestors were meaner and less caring than we are? Did our great-great-grandparents need a good talking-to about compassion? I doubt it. It was in their day that some of the greatest and most lasting charitable organizations on the planet were founded and went on to thrive — from the Red Cross to the Salvation Army.

Our 14th president, Franklin Pierce, once vetoed a bill (in 1854) for federal aid to the mentally ill. In his words, “It cannot be questioned that if Congress has power to make provision for the indigent insane ... it has the same power to provide for the indigent who are not insane, and thus to transfer to the federal government the charge of all the poor in all the States.”

Pierce, like founding father James Madison and millions of other Americans for much of our history, believed that charity was not a duty of the federal government. It made no sense to them to take money from the citizenry, launder it through a distant bureaucracy and then give some of it back. They knew that politicians and bureaucrats were no more charitable than the people back home. They also knew that it was dangerous to liberty to put politicians in the business of buying votes with handouts from the public treasury.

Americans largely understood that the poor and needy of virtually every other nation on the planet were poor and needy because of what governments were doing to them, often in the name of doing something for them: taxing and regulating them into poverty; seizing their property and businesses; persecuting them for their faith; torturing and killing them because they held views different from those in power; and squandering their resources on official luxury, mindless warfare and wasteful boondoggles. America was about government not doing such things to people — and that one fact was, all by itself, a powerfully effective anti-poverty program.

Americans pulled themselves out of poverty in our first century and a half by creating wealth through invention and enterprise. Then they generously gave much of their income — along with their time and personal attention — to private organizations for the aid of their neighbors and communities.

Such groups are far more effective in solving social problems — poverty, homelessness and illiteracy, for instance — than are government programs. If they don’t produce results, they wither. When a government program fails to perform, its lobbyists make a case for more funding and they usually get it.

Private charity or public welfare: There’s a big difference between the two, and I think our ancestors understood that much better than we do today.

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(Lawrence W. Reed, a resident of Newnan, is president of the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, N.Y., and Atlanta.)

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