The Nation's Pulse

America the Generous

Forty billionaires must think otherwise.

By 8.11.10

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Forty billionaires have just pledged to give away at least half their wealth to charity, concerning which a few observations.

Scripture says it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of Heaven (capitalized because, as Ralph de Toledano pointed out, it's a place -- you know, like Scarsdale). We could note in passing, but will not, that there is no suggestion that a rich woman would be similarly challenged.

Viewed from Scripture's vantage point, the forty billionaires may simply be taking the necessary steps to make the needle's eye larger or the camel, and their riches, smaller.

Is it fair -- is it accurate -- to say that these people who are giving away billions are being generous?

During the 1968 presidential campaign, William F. Buckley Jr. remarked that the Democratic candidate, Hubert Humphrey, had already promised the American people everything and that, since beyond everything there is only nothing, Humphrey was now promising the people exactly: nothing.

There's a bit of that here too. If we assume that even half a billion dollars is more than enough to live on, indeed more than enough to satisfy the dreams of avarice, then any additional wealth can mean to him that possesses it only nothing; in which case what these generous people are giving away is also: nothing.

At least nothing that means anything to them. Which again raises the question: What is generosity?

But perhaps that's just being churlish. How is a rich man supposed to be generous? What can he do? Is it possible for him to sacrifice? Perhaps it is best just to understand that that's his business.

There are other miscellaneous points. One of them is that the donors will get tax deductions for their gifts, the meaning of which is unclear since they have so much money that taxes have no impact on their lives -- which, not incidentally, tends to diminish their resistance to high taxes, which is not good for the rest of us.

Another point is that it is almost certain that the country would be better served if these billionaires kept their money and continued to invest it. Investing is an activity at which they have proved to be exceptionally skilled, and their investments would be far more likely to produce jobs and products -- real benefits -- than anything any charitable institution could possibly do with the funds.

A third point is the curious collectivity of the operation. Why did they get together to make a joint announcement? Why not just make their decisions in the privacy of their privy chambers? Were they looking for glory (which would suggest that having billions is not satisfying), or setting an example (for whom?)?

There is at least one potential significant benefit of the gifts: the funds will be deployed by private people, not government, which would surely waste it. But this is only a potential benefit: most of the donors are liberals, and it is possible, even likely -- perhaps certain -- that the money will go to the usual left-wing causes. With good luck, it will be wholly wasted; with bad luck it will do significant damage to limited constitutional government (the only real hope of the poor). The relevance of either scenario to generosity being -- what?

Still, the gifts do focus on one aspect of modern democratic life that the big-government types like to avoid. The donors are private people who will be fulfilling their own obligations to the poor.

It is part of liberal dogma that "we must look after the poor," by which, of course, liberal politicians mean they will take our money by force and deploy in ways they see fit.

Joe Biden, Exhibit A, spoke in 1988 of "changing the attitude of Americans about what their responsibilities are to the poor, about what their responsibilities are to other people."

What is this man talking about? Americans are an exceedingly generous people, as has been amply documented by Arthur Brooks, in his book Gross National Happiness and in a piece he wrote for the American Enterprise Institute, of which he is the president.

Here are some of the points he made:

• "In 2006, Americans gave about $295 billion to charity."

• "Charitable giving has generally risen faster than the growth of the American economy for more than half a century."

• "Most estimates place the percentage of American households that make monetary contributions each year at 70 to 80 percent, and the average American household contributes more than $1,000 annually."

• "About a third of individual gifts go toward sacramental activities, primarily supporting houses of worship. The rest goes to secular activities, such as education, health, and social welfare."

• "No developed country approaches American giving. For example, in 1995 (the most recent year for which data are available), Americans gave, per capita, three and a half times as much to causes and charities as the French, seven times as much as the Germans, and 14 times as much as the Italians."

• "Tax deductibility is actually irrelevant for most people. IRS records show that only about a third of people who file tax returns itemize their deductions."

• "When we measure monetary giving as a percentage of income in order to ascertain the level of one's 'sacrifice,' we find a surprising result: it is low-income working families that are the most generous group in America, giving away about 4.5 percent of their income on average. This compares to about 2.5 percent among the middle class, and 3 percent among high-income families."

• "Self-described 'conservatives' in America are more likely to give -- and give more money -- than self-described 'liberals.'" (Isn't that delicious!?)

It is apparent that Americans have not needed the example of billionaires to teach them how to be generous.

If we think there are questions about the generosity of billionaires' giving away their own money, what are we to make of politicians giving away our money?

The question becomes increasingly urgent as the ability of government to spend money diminishes relative to the budgets of the faux-eleemosynary programs the politicians concoct.

It is not possible to count quickly the government programs that give money to the poor; they are, roughly speaking, innumerable: food stamps; children's health insurance; the Women, Infants, and Children Program; college student aid; Temporary Assistance for Needy Families; federal foster care; et cetera; et cetera; et cetera.

What we have discovered is that it is as difficult to stop the politicians from taking money from the productive sector and giving it to the nonproductive sector -- in the name of charity -- as it is for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. That is becoming, or has become, the central problem of our time.

Of course, "in the name of charity" (or any similar formulation, such as meeting one's "responsibilities to the poor") is Congressional nonsense. The recipients of federal grants can be charities, but the taxpayers aren't being charitable because they are acting under coercion; and Congress isn't being charitable because the funds don't belong to Congress.

If the acts of the forty billionaires serve to remind us of the inescapably individual nature of charity, their gifts will be worth trillions, and our debt to them inestimable.

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About the Author

Daniel Oliver is a Senior Director of White House Writers Group in Washington, D.C. He served as Chairman of the Federal Trade Commission under President Ronald Reagan.