How is it that after the expenditure of trillions of dollars, the percentage of poor people in the United States is largely unchanged? Does the rate of reproduction among poor people exceed the assistance government provides? Are illegal aliens entering the United States skewing the evidence since they are often employing public social services? Or is it likely that philanthropy and government commitments tend to be distant from the target of their largess, overlooking the real conditions for poverty?
Despite the widely held view that philanthropy is desirable as a way to mitigate the influence of poverty, there is another, often disregarded, side to social beneficence. Some would argue – I am among them – that the welfare state, with all of its well-meaning rhetoric, actually creates more poverty and dependence than it was designed to abolish.
For the recipient of charity there is the intoxicating impression that this transfer payment is necessary and desirable. Hence the behavior that results in poverty is often reinforced, rather than reproved. For the charitable giver there is very often smug righteousness, a belief that one is saving the world through personal acts of benevolence. This is analogous to the good intentions that lead to debilitating effects.
There was a time several decades ago when officials at the UN would visit Haiti at the invitation of “Papa Doc” Duvalier. What they would see was mind-boggling poverty, poverty that would yield tears from a statue. These visits invariably resulted in enormous financial transfers and naturally self-satisfied UN.claims of addressing the issue. But this annual event did not have any effect on Haiti’s poor. How could it? The money went directly into Duvalier’s Swiss bank account. However that didn’t stop the UN from adopting a righteous stance about the use of its development funds.
This is merely the tip of the proverbial iceberg. President Johnson organized the Great Society program with great benevolence. A war was declared against poverty, a war that in the aggregate had a price tag of several trillion dollars and in a variety ways, especially legacy programs, continues to cost billions annually. Yet there isn’t any evidence this expense has had any effect on the poverty rate in the United States. Of course this result or lack thereof hasn’t had any influence on those advocating for government programs.
Similarly, President Obama “invested” more than $800 billion to stimulate the economy. He argued, when the legislation was being entertained, that this funding would reduce the 7.3 percent unemployment rate. Yet two years later the unemployment rate has risen to over 9 percent and there isn’t any indication this government spending has had any effect in creating new jobs. Here is an example of benevolence with a vengeance.
Speaking of this form of benevolence, Walter Bagehot noted that benevolence can cause great evil:
It augments so much vice, it multiplies so much suffering, it brings to life such great populations to suffer and to be vicious, that it is open to argument whether it be or be not an evil to the world, and this is entirely because excellent people fancy they can do much by rapid actions — that they will most benefit the world when they must relieve their own feelings.
David Stove, an Australian philosopher, agreed: “Benevolence is the heroin of the Enlightened.”
Alas, this is most poignant observation. The benevolent consider themselves superior because they are doing so much by arguing for those who have so little. The fact that this benevolence often has a baneful effect is disregarded. Big government is politically correct because it is ever in search of assisting or attempting to assist one group or another.
On a television program in which I appeared with Representative Charles Rangel, he said my proposal for lower taxes was “racist.” In his view any effort at financial retrenchment, any effort to restrict benevolence for a designated group, is evil.
Of course the real evil is believing benevolence is a policy government should pursue.