Whenever I visit my local shopping mall during the Christmas Season, I am treated to the very best and the very worst of human nature. The worst rears its head in the parking lot; the best reveals itself in the Salvation Army bell ringers, Toys for Tots, and gift-wrapping fundraisers that line the assorted storefronts.
Contrary to popular opinion, the state’s entry into social welfare does not act as a complement to private giving. Instead, the need of regulators to further their own social vision has crowded out and, at times, downright censored private acts of charity, robbing the public of its opportunity to do good works and consigning society’s most vulnerable to the unfeeling attention of a faceless bureaucracy.
Christmas, for all its commercialism, still stands as one of the best examples of our country’s commitment to charity. Recent studies estimate that Americans give nearly $54 billion to charity during the Christmas Season, around 18% of the $300 billion donated each year.
Those who favor an expansive welfare state frequently attempt to manipulate this societal desire to serve the poor. They wrap their pet programs in the language of charity and social justice and then pressure public officials into supporting expansions of government power.
Government intervention, however, is not the ally of private charity—or the poor, for that matter. Even if we ignore the impact big government has on economic mobility, we cannot escape the uncomfortable truth that government regularly favors its own social agenda and the agenda of special interests over compassion.
Big government comes from a mindset that would empower regulators to structure society according to their own vision. And, that vision is never confined to just helping the destitute. Instead, regulators seek to craft a comprehensive policy agenda, which may recognize the virtue of serving the poor, but only in the context of other competing values.
We see this happening across the country. In Florida, a city fined Corey Marion, owner of Happy Tails pet grooming, for posting a Toys-for-Tots banner in front of her store. Code enforcers claimed that the sign violated city ordinances on proper advertisement locations.
New York City went one step farther. There, officials banned all food donations to homeless shelters—possibly the most traditional example of private giving—because the city couldn’t assess their salt, fat and fiber content.
At the national level, the Department of Health and Human Services has threatened to impose a multi-million dollar fine on Little Sisters of the Poor, a Catholic order of nuns who help the elderly, because their religious faith does not allow them to provide employees with contraception.
The danger of government compassion going astray increases when helping the poor becomes politically inconvenient—in other words, when the method or manner of an act of charity contradicts with certain favored policy objectives that the government deems more important. When this happens, the government begins to view charity as an obstacle in which to regulate away, not as a respected partner in caring for those in need.
Some may counter that these interventions are necessary because otherwise private charity would reflect the arbitrary biases of the public. However, as the examples show, regulators are just as vulnerable to their own form of capriciousness. There is no objective reason why business owners cannot advertise that their store is a Toys-for-Tots drop-off point. Likewise, there is no objective reason why a religious order should be shutdown because they can’t dispense a pill in good conscience.
What they really mean then is that the government’s preferences for the poor are more enlightened than the public’s.
That type of pride hurts the poor. When the government supplants the efforts of individual charity, it entrenches dependence and leaves itself as the sole dispenser of relief. The poor lose the personalized care that’s characteristic of private giving as well as human bonds that tie them to the community.
Studies repeatedly show that personal attention and supportive relationships reduce poverty better than financial assistance alone. Government programs, however, deny the poor these essential relationships, leaving them with a handout but no human hand to help pull them out of poverty.
If Americans truly wish to celebrate the season of ‘good will towards men,’ then they need to continue the tradition of small government and leave social welfare to private charities capable of expressing human compassion.
Kathleen Hunker works as a policy analyst in Austin, Texas. She is a graduate of Columbia University School of Law and the University College London, where she earned an J.D./ LL.M. in public law and human rights.
NOTE: An edited version of this article appeared at the Austin American-Statesman. It was reposted with the author’s permission.