Walter E. Williams

Charity to man's fellow man is praiseworthy, and Americans are the most generous people on Earth. According to a quote by American philanthropist Daniel Rose in "An Exceptional Nation," an article in Philanthropy magazine (November/December 2004), "American private charitable contributions this year will exceed $200 billion, equal to about 10 percent of the total federal budget; that some 70 percent of U.S. households make charitable cash contributions; and that over half of all U.S. adults will volunteer an estimated 20 billion hours in charitable activities." Americans contribute six or seven times more than some of our European neighbors.

 What about President Bush's $350 million commitment for earthquake and tsunami relief -- is that just as praiseworthy? Let's look at it. Charity is reaching into one's own pockets to assist his fellow man in need. Reaching into someone else's pocket to assist one's fellow man hardly qualifies as charity. When done privately, we deem it theft, and the individual risks jail time.

 What would some of our ancestors say about government "charity"? James Madison, the father of our Constitution, said, in a January 1794 speech in the House of Representatives, "The government of the United States is a definite government, confined to specified objects. It is not like state governments, whose powers are more general. Charity is no part of the legislative duty of the government."

 A few years later, Virginia Rep. William Giles condemned a relief measure for fire victims, saying it was neither the purpose nor the right of Congress to "attend to what generosity and humanity require, but to what the Constitution and their duty require."

 Unlike President Bush, a few of our former presidents understood that charity is not a government function. Franklin Pierce, our 14th president, vetoed a bill to help the mentally ill, saying, "I cannot find any authority in the Constitution for public charity," adding that to approve such spending "would be contrary to the letter and the spirit of the Constitution and subversive to the whole theory upon which the Union of these States is founded."

 In 1887, President Grover Cleveland, our 22nd and 24th president, said, when he vetoed a bill to assist drought-inflicted counties in Texas, "I feel obliged to withhold my approval of the plan to indulge in benevolent and charitable sentiment through the appropriation of public funds. ... I find no warrant for such an appropriation in the Constitution."


Walter E. Williams

Dr. Williams serves on the faculty of George Mason University as John M. Olin Distinguished Professor of Economics and is the author of 'Race and Economics: How Much Can Be Blamed on Discrimination?' and 'Up from the Projects: An Autobiography.'
 
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