The Nation's Pulse

Giving a Damn

Americans don't give enough? Think again.

By 4.2.08

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'Tis the season for annual reports and we now know -- exactly -- who gave what to whom and for what hopeful purposes. This financial transparency provides both a database for scholars and a target for critics. In the dash to the media microphones, the latter proved fleeter of foot. Just a few examples:

The soi-disant D.C. omnipresence Pablo Eisenberg, in a widely quoted piece headlined "Americans Generous? Not Really," epitomizes the trendy view: "At a time when the wealthiest Americans have achieved sharp gains in income, it is a distressing sign that the overall share of income going to charity has remained relatively unchanged at about 2 percent." Another way to headline that same story, of course, would be to say: "Contributions From Rich Surge Along With New Wealth." We love Pablo, but we think it unlikely that his dream of a world awash in capital but uncontaminated by capitalists will materialize anytime soon.

Then there is the spray of ideological pellets from the embrasure of the New York Times manned by class warrior-journalist David Cay Johnson. The eager-beavering Johnson has never met a heap of financial stats that he couldn't separate into two neat piles labeled The Uncaring Rich and The Oppressed Poor. Think of them, in Johnsonian terms, as Vice and Virtue. Just this past week we heard from a senior member of the U.S. Senate (because we were speaking personally and not professionally we will not cite him by name) who told us flatly that the "rich are charitable only when there's a PR hit in it for them." Or as Robert Frank, the Wall Street Journal columnist, repined: "Too much of today's charity is about gratifying the giver, rather than helping the needy."

Well, we enjoy a good rant as much as the next guy. (Okay, maybe more.) But the problem with cant rolling unchallenged through the policy world is that, amplified by partisan megaphones, it can lead to legislation. Personal judgments of moral hygiene have before and may once again become...The Law. So let's poke just a few fact-sticks through the spokes of this fast-moving bicycle. For the year just reported (2006) American individuals, foundations, and corporations donated $295 billion to charity.* That's more than Americans have ever donated before. That's more than any other country has ever donated. In fact, that's more than any other two countries have ever donated -- more per capita, more as a percentage of income, more in inflation-adjusted terms. Just plain more.

And as I reminded my friend the Senator, there were 87 gifts of $1 million or more donated anonymously. Ascribe whatever motivation you like, but hunger for publicity will not explain those gifts. Messrs. Eisenberg, Johnson, and the other travel agents for upper-class guilt trips are wrong, but, from the long-term perspective, perhaps unwittingly constructive. Charity is a pillar of American democracy and almost anything that enhances its social presence -- including the carp and the kvetch -- is to be encouraged.

Think of it this way. Much of American history can be viewed as one endless and endlessly fascinating conversation between Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton. The question that engaged them was: Where in the American system shall we place the locus of power? Should we shove it toward the core with the state, or push it out toward the periphery with the individual? Where can we strike the harmonious balance between the freedom of the people and the power of their government? The answer for America has changed over time and circumstance but the question itself has perdured. It will be at the heart of the national election this year just as surely as it was at the heart of George Washington's campaign.

Quite obviously, the Hamiltonian centripetalists have been getting the best of it in recent years. The Jeffersonian voice is all but stilled in the town square. (Can you imagine the frisson that would have passed through Hamilton upon hearing the term Big-Government Republican? Thus inflamed, he would have fled to the arms of his mistress. Even his wife might have been at risk.) But the Jefferson-Hamilton debate, only temporarily quiescent, burns still in the hearts of their countrymen and it does so, I would argue, precisely because of the robust nature of American charity.

Call them Burke's little platoons or Tocqueville's voluntary associations or identify them only as the scurrying brother-keepers we see all around us -- it is this charitable impulse beeping so insistently through American life that keeps at bay the presumptions of the welfare state. Absent help from friend and colleague and neighbor and fellow parishioner, absent help from the private community, Americans like their European cousins would have turned instinctively to government for both succor and direction.

Americans generous? You bet. And thank God for that.

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About the Author
Neal B. Freeman is chairman of the Blackwell Corporation.