Charity and The French Mistake
THE FRENCH MISTAKE
Barry J. Schwartz, Ph.D.
As I read Sharon Presley’s post about mutual aid and charity, I began to think about France.
As Sharon says, libertarians should be aware that charity is really one more strong point for liberty, and a shameful weak point for state-control freaks. (aka “state control-freaks”).
Charity can be a challenging topic: People should be militant about their liberty, and also remember that liberty includes their freedom to be kindhearted in their own damn personal way. That means—charity without any Socialist- or establishment-religion guilt mongering …Thomas Sowell makes a great case for the distinction between “Compassion Versus Guilt” in his book by the same name.
Now, the thing about France.
In Paris, you can walk along the Hotel des Invalides with the magnificent acres of green parkland. It’s an ostentatiously beautiful palace that served as a hospital– a gilded monument to “top-down” generosity– a grand gesture of noblesse oblige that the French carry off with a style that nobody else can match. Why even try? But somehow, these great works still failed to prevent famines and bloodbaths in Paris. That may have led the curious to visit America, where there had never been a famine, and where there were dozens of competing religions but no inquisitions—no history of rivers running red with the blood of heretics.
De Toqueville is supposed to have come to the US to study our prison system. When he got here and looked around, he was amazed at the number of mutual aid societies, church groups, and civic charities that had grown up all over the young nation.
Guess what? Left to their own unofficial devices, voluntary-ists often volunteer. Mon Dieu !
And, they don’t boast about it either. They don’t throw lavish parties to celebrate their virtue. And…best of all, they don’t condescend to the less fortunate.
But then, after De Toqueville departed, and as soon charities start to say “what good boys are we”…when they showed up on the society pages and built fancy headquarters, just watch out. The terminal stage of narcissism set in when they invited State and Federal agencies in to help the unfortunate. The statists already have the noblesse oblige attitude, and are eager to expand official top-down generosity—all paid for by others with extorted money. And that’s when things always seem to go straight downhill for the poor and the needy.
We have been seeing the poor and sick, especially in the inner cities, treated with contempt at the hands of a faceless bureaucracy. I recall watching news segments on local New York TV stations where people living in city-run tenements accidentally started fires because they had to use their oven ranges to heat their tenements. The building owners –-the city government—could not or would not heat the buildings.
Would any private charity allow the heat to stop working in a residential building? Could they? And if one of them somehow did, would the agency still survive and run the buildings for another minute? Well, the city did. What should have made the news was that the system remained in place as landlord. Probably, the news reporters had long since stopped being capable of empathy. Real scandals only happen on Wall Street.
Libertarians know that the only safety net is productivity and generosity. What is advertised as a state run safety net is really a spider web.
True, some number of people will wind up poor or helpless, at least for a time. But, private, decentralized charities are less likely to regard these people as mere statistics. Today, a person is a “case” – a number, and is made to fill out forms and wait. They are not a customer with a future, but instead they are looked at as a liability. If they are resented by the taxpayer from afar, that’s nothing compared to the treatment they get every day at the hands of the mistrustful souls that minister to them from behind desks and counters of government agencies too numerous to count. (In the1980’s it was been said that five welfare dollars in every six feeds the bureau, and one dollar in six go to the needy.)
A European observer would have to say welfare “cases” are treated as peasants. The word “peasant.” is not in the American vocabulary, I guess much the same way as “entrepreneur” is not in the French vocabulary. But, then, that’s one difference between a voluntaryist, largely immigrant, free nation and its stylish but class-conscious opposite numbers in Europe.
Give it to the French. They do know how to relax, and they know how to live it up with good food and fine art. But as a whole, they do not understand private generosity – they are stuck with the trickle down variety, an institution which now threatening to tear Europe apart.
As for real aid, the best charity in history has been immigration. The biggest boon is becoming an American. People come from all over and leave everything behind to do it.
Although France is a great place to visit, no foreigner can ever become a true Frenchman. Quite the opposite here.
Now, if we want to become generous again as a nation, beneficent and benevolent, we have to re-generate the moral and social world that Toqueville saw and admired. When we do, we might once again live up to that nice statue the French gave us.