There Is No Virtue In Coerced Charity

“Generosity is a moral virtue that cannot flourish in a welfare state. . . . It will, however, flourish in a free society.”

by F.R. Duplantier

“Generous acts require the right to private property,” observes philosopher Tibor Machan. “The point is ancient — Aristotle argued it nearly 2,500 years ago. But its full import has never been widely enough appreciated,” Machan laments. “Indeed, many who proselytize for generosity, compassion, kindness, and charity have resisted the establishment of the right to private property as a firm principle of law.”

In a new book called Generosity, published by the Cato Institute, Machan charges that the welfare state “unabashedly perverts the idea of the right to private property and thus stands as a substantial obstacle to . . . kindness and generosity among the citizenry. That system has placed its confidence, instead, in forced ‘charity,’ wealth redistribution at the point of a gun, which does not by any means encourage goodwill among us. It fosters resentment, bureaucratic inefficiency, and frustration,” Machan contends, “but, most of all, it blocks the only way moral excellence can flourish, by way of free choice.”

Machan emphasizes that “the right to be free — including the right to treat one another generously, stingily, kindly, callously, and so forth — is of primary importance for everyone. To make the right choices,” he explains, “human beings have to have their sovereignty as moral agents fully respected. That is the only way a creature of free will can be free to choose to act virtuously, including generously, and thus be capable of living a morally significant life.”

Machan rejects the pessimistic view of mankind that is used to justify interventionist governments. “Free men and women may not choose to use their limited resources for what someone else thinks is worthy of joint attention,” he concedes. “But there are likely to be more than enough appeals to generosity in a free community to inspire each individual without the imposition of coercively forced obligations.” Machan is willing to “trust women and men to be decent, including generous and charitable, without any ‘official’ regimentation. They will then be free,” he says, “to build and sustain human communities that exhibit care, compassion, and kindness alongside prudence, industry, courage, and other virtues, without sacrificing personal sovereignty in the least.”

We Americans are indisputably the most generous people that have ever lived. Why, then, must we be treated like skinflints? Why must we be fleeced as taxpayers in support of causes favored by some political or cultural elite? Why must our children be compelled as students to “volunteer” for public services selected by preening, left-leaning educators? Most people I know are as generous as they can be with their time and money. The problem is, Uncle Sam and his relatives at the state and local levels don’t leave us a whole lot of either. Just think what an explosion of charity there would be in this country if the federal tax-bite were drastically reduced! Some of you just snickered, didn’t you? Well, now we know who the real skinflints are.

Week of: Feb. 7, 1999