Train of principles has left the station

Walter E. Williams: CNJ columnist

Charity to man’s fellow man is praiseworthy, and Americans are the most generous people on Earth.

An article in Philanthropy magazine (November/December 2004) quoted American philanthropist Daniel Rose saying: “American private charitable contributions this year will exceed $200 billion, equal to about 10 percent of the total federal budget; … some 70 percent of U.S. households make charitable cash contributions; and … 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 money.”

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.

Walter E. Williams is a professor of economics at George Mason University. He writes for Creators Syndicate and may be contacted at:
wwilliam@gmu.edu