On the Other Hand...

Compassion in a Free-Market Society

by Jim Davies

One of the ugliest things said about freedom advocates like me is that in a society without government, large numbers of poor citizens would be trampled underfoot. They say that if all were free selfishly to pursue our own ends, many would be left behind, to suffer and starve. That such a society would be harsh, uncaring, divisive, mean. That it's necessary to have a government, to make sure that even its poorest members can enjoy a decent standard of living.

An example came in the inaugural speech of Republican Bush; he promised that in his Administration, America would be a "kinder, gentler" nation. In so saying, he signalled an end to the allegedly free-market, free-wheeling, greedy "Reagan 80s", and a return to compassionate, redistributionist Socialism; and in the Bush-Clinton years ever since, we've seen that he wasn't kidding.

Well, it's a serious charge, for none of us wants to be mean. But is it true?

Private Charity

In my small town, there are perhaps half a dozen people who are marginally unemployable; their mental capacity is so limited that their labor is not truly worth anything like $5 an hour to any employer; and yet, they are employed.

No doubt there are some others, who are so unfortunate as to be totally unemployable, who can live only in the care either of their families or of an institution. Folk who are born with damaged brains, and so on; and nothing anyone can do can prevent that happening to a small number, and never could. Until this Century, though, they were cared for by private charity and I believe that should happen again. I have no doubt at all that, absent taxation, there would be an abundant supply of benefactors only too eager and able to donate the funds needed. But let me return to the "marginals", above.

I hope that the small firms that do employ these simple people do so out of compassion, rather than because of any law compelling them; and I think it is so. If it is, who wins, and who loses?

The employer might seem at first to be the loser; for he is paying out more in wages than the labor is worth - sweeping floors, etc. But, not so fast.

First, his compassion is visible. Customers notice, that he's given work to someone in serious need - that he's helping that person, limited though he is, to gain the self-respect of doing work and getting paid. And many of those shoppers will feel good about that. We will patronize his establishment more, as a result, than his competitor's. So, he gets a little more trade (and profit - that much-despised word!) as a result of his compassion. So may be he doesn't lose after all. So, if he doesn't lose, who does; do we shoppers lose?

Presumably, we pay a little more as higher prices to the compassionate employer than to the careless one. So it looks as if you and I pay for our compassion. But, again, not so fast. Do we gain nothing, as a result of shopping more often in a store that goes out of its way to help the unfortunate? - I think not. What we gain is, like the shopkeeper, a good feeling; the satisfaction of having indirectly helped someone in need. That's a valuable feeling to have!

Put simply, this private compassion amounts to purchasing self-respect. No, if we just calculate it coldly in those terms ("Ten dollars' worth of feel-good, please!") of course it doesn't work! - but when you net it all out, that's exactly what took place: we chose to pay a bit more money, and gained a bit more satisfaction. And, I'd say, we got a real good bargain.

Now, one essential component of that very satisfying transaction was that we chose to do it. If anyone had made us do it, there would have been no compassion, no bargain, no satisfaction. And even worse, assuming the recipient of our charity knows what's going on, he will gain no satisfaction or self respect either; instead of sensing that a lot of good people out there love him and want to help, he will know that he's getting helped only because we are being forced to "give" it; that otherwise, we'd not lift a finger to assist. He will reasonably conclude that nobody cares a fig for his existence. All his fragile self-respect, in other words, would go right down the toilet.

Forced "Compassion"

That is exactly what is happening now, except perhaps in small towns like mine. Government at all levels seizes about $45 out of every $100 we earn, and pretends to spend it on those in need (actually that's a wicked fraud, because less than $6 of that $45 goes anywhere close to those in need) - so relieving us of the necessity to even think about the plight of the needy, on the one hand, and removing our ability much to aid them anyway, on the other.

The inevitable result (however hard the administrators of forced "charity" may try to run a humane operation) is that you and I lose some compassion, and the good feeling we get from having voluntarily assisted someone less fortunate. Simultaneously, instead of gaining the self respect and pleasure of knowing that many good people want to help him, the recipient of "entitlements" is taught that nobody would help if they weren't forced to against their will, and he'd better be grateful to the clerk behind the hand-out desk and to the government for which she works. Can anyone really be surprised if the object of government "pity" should become disillusioned, crushed, hopeless, or bitter?

We saw that, surprisingly, in free and private compassion there are no losers. The donor gains, the compassionate employer gains, and the donee gains. In government's forced "compassion" system, in contrast, there are no winners! We all resent being taxed; the recipients resent being (apparently) despised; and the administrators lose by having only a thankless, never-ending job of handing over someone else's money to an unending stream of seemingly idle deadbeats.

Such is the wreckage, that government has made out of one major part of our humanity. That its leaders openly boast of its merits, just makes me retch.