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SENTRY JOURNAL » africa, charity, ethiopia, Freedom, haiti, Taxes » When Giving is Taking

When Giving is Taking

by RightHandMan

When my first daughter was born it was tough for me to accept the fact that she was going to get hurt in life. I couldn’t possibly protect her from every harm that was going to come her way. It isn’t easy giving consent to the innate counterpart of life – suffering …but concur we must.

I have been thinking of late about the principles that surround the practice of our federal government sending tax money for humanitarian aid. Surely there are numerous humanitarian needs throughout the world and few would disagree with the notion that helping those who are less fortunate is noble; but is gallantry the job of government?

Let me start out by saying that in the grand scheme of things America doesn’t spend a ton of money on humanitarian aid. Only about .080% (a little over $2 billion) of our federal budget is given to the altruism of foreign aid. You may be able to add to that depending on emergency world crisis of any given fiscal year. The purpose of this post isn’t focused on fiscal reform needs as much as it is on principles – one that goes further than the model of foreign aid I’m going to look at.

Let’s jump in.

My first concern regarding federal money in foreign aid is centered on the constitutional authority. The U.S Constitution says:

“The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States…”

For someone to justify foreign humanitarian aid from this clause they would have to use very loose definitions. I would argue that our Constitution, a legal document that regulates government, disallows for such spending. Whenever I make this argument, however, I’m reminded of all of those who will suffer due to my strict interpretation. So let’s look at that.

If I were to state that I think American tax dollars shouldn’t be sent to Haiti in order to pay for prosthetics for individuals who lost limbs during the earthquake, I might be called cold and heartless. However, if I were to say that America should pay for all prosthetics in the world, I would be considered mad. That’s the problem; there is suffering everywhere on all kinds of levels. Even if it were legally justifiable for America to help, how do we distinguish where, when, and how much to give?

The issue goes deeper. How often does America give tax money to suffering nations just to watch it backfire? Has anyone heard of the “oil for food” scandal? History is even painting a different picture in the large amount of money we pumped into Africa in the 1990s. Consider Ethiopia, a nation that saw huge humanitarian dollars in an effort to save poor starving families over the last two decades. How have things improved? Critics argue that the money mainly funded war efforts and didn’t do much to end the starvation. It wasn’t a natural phenomenon that killed the people of Ethiopia, it was politics – politics America helped fund. Ethiopia still has a dictator, starvation, and genocide in spite of the countless dollars it received – or perhaps because of the aid.

Let me make it clear, I am not promoting a complete national isolationism nor am I discouraging private funding to worthy causes. There are very important distinctions between the ramifications of personal and national offerings – clout and identity. If America gives to a nation to help ease suffering and that nation takes that money and uses it to perform genocide, that blemish rests on America as a whole. If an individual gives money to the same cause then that individual deals with the ramifications on a more personal level.

The next natural disparity, and perhaps the most important, is that an individual’s offering is given freely while the public funding is given by government. The polls over the past few decades have been very interesting. They show that most people would be willing to give more of their tax money to countries in need than is actually given. When they guess as to how much is already given their guesses are almost always high. There is no doubt that Americans are generous, but generosity through the government is more of a write off than a donation.

Even though most Americans are fine with their taxes being spent for “noble causes”, their nobility is misplaced. There is little chivalry in spending money that isn’t yours – no matter the purpose. Few would consider paying taxes a heroic act as opposed to a necessity. Although many Americans might be fine with THEIR money going to starving children, it is not just THEIR money going.

I might also point out that few would deem the man who considers his taxes to be his full pledge in donations as openhanded. Charity comes from the heart, not from government programs. There are a few dangers that are inherent to adopting an “assistance through government” mentality – foremost the loss of attachment. It is this kind of attitude that leads VP Biden down the path of frugality in private donations ($369/year). I’m not trying to pick on Biden, but the philosophy that led to his defense – that he pays his taxes and therefore is charitable.

Americans give an average of 3% of their income to private charity – that’s not including tithe and offerings given in many churches, much of which funds charitable causes. The Chronicle of Philanthropy reported in July that non-profit groups raised $1.3 billion worldwide for the Haiti relief effort. This was for a single and specific cause! This raises the question, if aid is so available throughout the world, why are we using tax dollars at all?

The reason is far from valiant, it is for political purposes. Not much was given for humanitarian aid by our government prior to the Band Aid and Live Aid concerts and media exposure which began putting pressure on politicians. While Americans were awakened to the suffering of places like Africa, Politicians used the new sympathetic consciousness of the American people to catapult their name into the cause. It wasn’t long before pols started promising funding to various charitable causes for political gain. Once again, a very dignified stance considering that it wasn’t their money.

So why is this topic important? Is it because I’m so angry that America gives in an attempt to feed the hungry? No. It is important because the issue transcends this minor fiscal issue into much larger ones; most notably health care. The starving children in Africa are the uninsured here in America. Everyone likes the idea of all having great health insurance, but like the prosthetic dilemma I offered earlier, it’s not possible. Either not everyone can have it or everyone takes a lower quality.

Just as it is tough for me to allow for my daughters to live freely with the knowledge that they would be wounded, it also tough for me to acknowledge that people across the globe are suffering in the most terrible of ways. Fortunately, I am free to do my part in helping in whatever way I choose. I receive a pay check from my employer and where that money goes, aside from my taxes, is of my choosing.

Here lies the crux of my post. America’s Constitution doesn’t allow government to take care of people through the established system; it provides a system that protects liberty. Liberty, however, provides an endless or finite base in which to take care of anyone and everyone. It is because I am free that I am able to help my fellow citizen in their time of need, give money to children in a distant land, etc. If we are willing to accept that government is better equipped to handle our charity and our indemnity, then why not hand them everything?


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Filed under: africa, charity, ethiopia, Freedom, haiti, Taxes

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