Jewish World Review Feb. 9, 2005 /30 Shevat, 5765
Not yours to give
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."
Tennessee Rep. Col. Davy Crockett, in a speech before the House
of Representatives, said, in protest against a $10,000 appropriation for a
widow of a distinguished naval officer, "We have the right, as individuals,
to give away as much of our own money as we please in charity, but as
members of Congress, we have no right to appropriate a dollar of the public
I'd like to ask President Bush and members of the 109th Congress
whether they've discovered the constitutional authority for charitable
expenditures undiscovered by James Madison, William Giles, Presidents
Franklin Pierce and Grover Cleveland, and Davy Crockett. Major U.S.
companies, such as American Express, Pfizer, Exxon Mobil and General Motors
donated millions of dollars to tsunami relief efforts. Like those of the
Bush administration and Congress, their actions aren't praiseworthy at all.
The CEOs who authorized these "charitable" donations were reaching not into
their own pockets but into the pockets of their shareholders.
I get the feeling that the train of constitutional principles
has left the station and the recent tsunami episode is simply another
symptom of American obliviousness to constitutional government. Today's
politicians can't be held fully responsible for our abandonment of
constitutional government. While they can be blamed for not being statesmen,
the lion's share of the blame rests with 280 million Americans. Elected
officials simply mirror public misunderstanding or contempt for
constitutional principles. Tragically, adherence to the constitutional
values of men like James Madison and Davy Crockett would spell political
suicide in today's America.
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