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Of Charitable Effort

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



As men advance in civilization the amelioration of the condition of their fellows must become a subject of increasing interest to them. It is not the function of political economy to decide what men ought or ought not to do to promote this end. But it is a legitimate function of the science to point out the effect upon the welfare of the race of any and every charitable effort into which men may enter.

We begin with some general remarks upon the impulses of our nature. It is a well-known fact that those appetites which are essential to the continued existence of mankind are liable to become destructive of his well-being when not controlled by reason. Hence in all civilized communities laws are enacted having for their object the enforcement of certain restraints upon the appetites. The question may now arise whether it is not possible that those benevolent impulses of our nature which move us to relieve distress and suffering may lead to real injury when not guided by reason ; whether, in fact, these impulses may not need to be restrained as well as the appetites. That such a case is at least possible will be evident when we reflect on the complexity of the social organism, on the numerous remote effects which the combined charities of the community may have in the course of generations, and on how little those who give alms consider these effects. It is impossible to maintain any general proposition on this subject which shall cover more than a limited range. We must therefore reach a conclusion by considering different cases in detail.

Let us first take up the familiar case of a beggar. A gentleman is implored for relief by a repulsive piece of humanity, enshrouded in rags and covered with dirt. Moved by pity, he gives him a dime and passes on. What is the economical nature of this transaction ? We reply that the transaction is one of supply and demand, belonging to the same class as the supply: of and demand for personal services. The combined willingness and ability of a number of persons in the community to give dimes to beggars constitutes a demand for beggary, just as much as if an advertisement, " Beggars wanted, liberal alms guaranteed," were conspicuously inserted in the columns { of a newspaper. If there is any difficulty in seeing the truth of this statement, it should disappear when the reader reflects that nothing is necessary to constitute an economic demand except readiness to make payments on certain conditions. Among a crowd of children fond of music, an ability and a willingness to give pennies to organ-grinders constitute a demand for. their services. This is evident. Though not so evident, it is equally true that an ability and a willingness on the part of people of delicate musical ears to give organ-grinders pennies for " moving on" are equally a demand for their services, in spite of the fact that the service is the very thing they are paying to get rid of. The fact that the benevolent gentleman may wish that there were no beggars, and may be very sorry to see them, does not change the economic effect of his readiness to give them money. From an economic point of view the gentleman pays the beggar for being poor, miserable, idle, dirty, and worth-less.

Such being the case, the supply of this service arises according to the same economic laws that the supply of any other service arises. As in every community where there is a demand for bricklayers a certain portion of the young will be-come bricklayers, and will try to lay bricks in such a way as to gain the highest wages, so in a community where there is a demand for beggars a certain number are sure to become beggars, and to study the professional accomplishments which will be most likely to draw money from the pockets of the benevolent. Hence, in the case supposed, mendicity will _exist according to the same laws that govern the existence of other trades and occupations.

It is often said that imbecility and mendicity are a growth of civilization, being unknown in primitive communities. Hence men look upon them as they look upon the diseases of civilization, namely, as something inseparably associated with progress. But a very little consideration will show that there is no such necessary connection. Why are there no beggars in comparatively poor and simple communities? We answer, for the same reason that there are no great actors, philosophers, or mathematicians in such communities. It is because the community cannot afford such luxuries. Where it is perfectly certain that no one can get anything in alms by any method of begging, mendicity can never arise. If, as may sometimes be the case, a child grows up too imbecile to make a living or do any work, his parents, friends, relatives, or acquaintances take charge of him as best they can, and are careful that he is not allowed to wander away and starve. Mendicity can gain a foothold only when the community gets so wealthy and benevolent as to present an economic demand for beggars and paupers.

A natural reply to the above considerations will be that they presuppose the mendicant to voluntarily adopt the profession of being miserable, and that, if it can be shown that this miserable condition arose without any overt act on his part, the law of supply and demand will not cover the case.

Cases in which this answer would be correct are not inconceivable. The extreme difficulty of deciding whether the misery of any special mendicant is or is not intentional might be urged on either side ; but in a scientific discussion we are concerned with the principles of the case, rather than the special facts. To show what view we are to take of the possible antithesis between voluntary and involuntary misery, let us consider another case.

Here is a little girl, born of poor and rather demoralized parents, who is being reared without any definite object in life. From early childhood she becomes aware that sums of money which seem to her fabulous in amount are raised by rich people for the benefit of the poor. If she lives in Europe, she is accustomed to seeing boxes in churches plainly marked " For the poor," and she finds out what it means before she can read. On getting a little older she becomes conscious that she has no chance to get any share of this money except by being even poorer than her parents. If she learns to cook for wealthier people, to do housework, to sew, to nurse; and if she uses the knowledge thus acquired in such a way as not to be a burden upon others, then she will have no right to any of this money. To get her share of it, she must remain poor, miserable, and worthless. To see what effect this may have upon her education and aspirations, let us look at human nature from another point of view.

We may say that, in a certain sense, men are by nature poor, miserable, and worthless. That is to say, if a child grows into a man without ever being taught or required to exercise his faculties, he will grow into this kind of a being. To make a decent living, even of the lowest sort, he must take pains, practise self-denial, seek for acquaintances, and make for himself a good character among his fellow-men. It is therefore not necessary, in order that the demand for objects of charity should be supplied, that any person should deliberately make up his mind to be a beggar. To become such all he needs to do is to do nothing. He can then with a greater or less approximation to truth say, " I have never tried to become a burden on society, and yet I can get no work ; I have nothing to do ; I am nearly starved; I shall soon be naked; I have no house in which to lay my head; I cannot get money for the barest necessities of existence."

The lesson is this : Although what the man says may be true, yet, if there had been no charity, he and his parents would have taken a different view of life, and he would have had a different training and a different history.

The question may now be asked, Does it follow from all this that no effort to benefit our fellow-man by giving him of our own subsistence can be otherwise than vain or injurious ? Are we to see thousands of our fellow-beings suffering the evils of poverty without making an effort to relieve them ? Are we to see them in wretchedness and misery without an effort to alleviate their condition ? Is a certain fraction of our race doomed to continue the lowest form of existence, do what we may?

We reply that the questions are not necessarily to be answered in the affirmative on account of anything we have said. What commonsense unites with science in saying is this : In order to alleviate the race we must intelligently adapt our means to our ends, and by merely following the blind impulses of our sentiments we do not secure such adaptation. The real difficulty is that charitable effort, as we see it every day practised, is not directed intelligently to the best ends. The ends to which it is intelligently directed are comparatively unimportant ones. To show this, let us see what should be the benevolent purposes of a reasonable and philanthropic being and compare them with the ordinary purposes of charitable associations,

Let us suppose that there are in this country one million people in a state of such destitution that they should receive the help of the charitable. Supposing the state of society to remain the same generation after generation, there will continue to be a constant portion, say two per cent of the population, in this deplorable condition. This brings to our minds three classes of people who may need our help. We have, firstly, the few score or hundreds whom we, or the organizations with whom we are connected, can find in our own city. Secondly, we have the remaining portion of the million whom we do not see, and whom we must leave others to find. Thirdly, we have the possible future millions who are to live in this country in future generations.

Corresponding to these three classes we have as many different purposes which charitable effort may have in view. The ordinary charitable society is devoted principally to the first class, namely, those poor whom we can find within their own sphere of operations. As a general rule their efforts do not make any change in the character of the unfortunate people with whom they deal, being mainly directed to the relief of their immediate wants. Of course the society would like very much to elevate them in their characters and constitutions, and many such associations have this in view. But the chances are that such efforts do not generally lead to any well-marked beneficial result.

Another purpose we might have in view is the relief and the elevation not only of the few poor we can find, but of the whole million whom we suppose to live in the country. Finally, a yet wider and higher motive is that of seeing that the prospective poor and miserable of future generations are diminished in numbers as much as possible.

We thus see that charity may have very different objects in view; and it is perhaps not quite just to say that charitable associations do not intelligently adapt means to ends, for, as a matter of fact, it must be considered that if their end is merely to relieve those particular persons to whose amelioration their efforts are directed, then that end is certainly attained by them. There can be no doubt that if we give a supply of food and clothing to a half-starved family, the wants of that family will be relieved so long as the supply holds out. The real question is whether this kind of relief should be the main object of our supposed reasonable and philanthropic being who desires to do the greatest good by his efforts.

A very little consideration will show us that it should not. To a reasonable being the interests of the mass of poor whom he cannot reach should be as dear as the interests of the few whom he can reach. The object of not adding to the number of the poor and miserable should be kept in view, as well as that of aiding the poor and miserable who now exist. The diminution of the number of such beings in future generations should be kept in sight as well as the diminution of those at the present time.

The first answer to this will be that even if we grant it, yet the great mass are people whom we can neither see nor help. Still less can we do anything for future generations ; therefore we will do our best work by attending to those who are within our reach. We must let the future bear its own burdens.

Here the philanthropic philosopher must join issue with the charitable man. The way we deal with the poor and miserable we see around us has a most important effect upon the poor and miserable we do not see. The next generation will be brought into the world by this generation, and it depends entirely upon the acts of this generation how many poor and miserable there shall be in the next. The law that like brings forth like is as true with the human race as with animals and plants. The greater the number of the degraded classes who are allowed to produce offspring which are allowed to grow to maturity, the more rapidly will these classes increase. What effect we wish our acts to have does not come into the question in considering the consequences of those acts. What we are concerned with is the natural consequences of our acts and not the motives which prompt them. We cannot evade the conclusion that the inevitable result of our current forms of charity is to enable the poor, miserable, and worthless elements of the community to bring forth children, to enable those children to escape the perils of infancy and grow to manhood, and to deprive them of the strongest incentive to become useful members of society, namely, the prospect that they will starve to death unless they learn to make a living. This result is what the reasonable philanthropist must deplore.

The defect in the current reasoning of the charitable is simply this : They consider that the effects of their charity terminate with the relief of their beneficiaries. Hence when they find that an applicant is really worthy, they consider their case fully made out. What they do not consider is the moral effect of their work upon the demoralized classes at large, and especially upon the training of their growing children.

The question now arises whether there is any way of modifying these effects. Must all charitable effort be directed solely towards enabling the degraded classes to live and propagate without elevating them ? Can they not be elevated by such action? The answer to these questions should come from the socialist rather than the economist, and so does not properly belong to the present work. It may, however, be remarked that all classes of humanity do, to, a certain extent, admit of elevation, and that they can, generation by generation, be slowly elevated if we properly adapt the means to the ends. The great end we should have in view is that of enabling the individual to earn a living by his own exertions. So far as our charitable effort is directed towards that end and no other, so far may its effect be beneficial. Society is greatly in want of laborers of every order who can be relied upon. If the children of the degraded classes could be taken in infancy, before their bad habits have had time to form, and trained to earn a livelihood, a certain proportion of them would be redeemed. If those who could not be so trained were allowed to starve, the number to grow up a burden on society would be diminished. The greatest difficulty in the way of such a policy is to organize charitable effort in such a way that it shall be intelligently directed to this end. The natural tendency of such effort is the very opposite of that here pointed out. What we really ought to do is to train, persuade, or compel every person to earn his living under penalty of starvation. The fundamental idea of current charity is the wholly incompatible one of enabling the favored few who chance to excite our sympathies to get a living without earning it. Just, so far as we can free ourselves from this benevolent impulse and turn our efforts in a more rational direction, so far may we hope that charitable effort may yet be beneficial to the race.

We have seen in preceding chapters of this work that every man who saves up and invests his money does really em-ploy it in such a way as to benefit all laborers able to earn a living. He does this by increasing the supply and lowering the price of the necessaries of life. Of course he does not help those who are unable to labor, because one who has no income of his own can purchase nothing, no matter how cheap it may be. We have also seen that the profits on an investment will be greater the greater the advantage which it insures to the community. If a capitalist's investment is a losing one, it shows that the labor he has directed by it has not been employed in the most economical manner to supply the wants of society at large. Without denying the possibility that intelligent philanthropic effort may in the future do much for elevating the most degraded of the race, we may at least lay down this proposition It has not yet been clearly shown that the possessor of a fund can benefit the race by it in any more effective way than by investing it in the best paying form of capital. Better methods will no doubt be found in the future, for the reason that this application of capital takes no account of the training of children, and it is to this training that philanthropic efforts should be directed.

Concluding Considerations. The study of political economy has two objects. One is the pleasure which every well-constituted man feels in understanding the processes which are going on in the world. This pleasure is quite independent of any relation of these processes to the wants of life. The other object is to see how the interests of mankind may be promoted by public action.

It is instructive to seek out a classification of the interests which actuate men in promoting the good of themselves or others. Our present stand-point leads us to consider three motives to human action :

The love of self ;

The love of a limited class having common interests and feelings with one's self;

The love of mankind at large.

Let us consider these motives in order.

The love of self, or egoism, as it has recently been called in philosophy, or selfishness, as its abnormal development is familiarly termed, is not so great an evil as is commonly supposed It would indeed be a most destructive agent if it were absolute; that is, if men in general were so selfish as to care absolutely nothing for the happiness of their fellows. But, as a matter of fact, moral training and the habit of obedience to law have so modified the inherent selfishness of the individual as to render it comparatively harmless. One reason for this harmlessness is that, as a general rule, every man can promote his own interests a great deal more effectively than he can promote any one else's, or than any one else can promote his. Another is that the selfish man can get little help from his fellow-men. But the most cogent reason of all is that men cannot promote their own economic interests except through promoting those of their fellow-men.

The second form of love, that for the class to which we belong, is, at present, the most dangerous one to which society is exposed. How this is we shall show by comparing it with the third form.

Love for humanity at large has before it a wide field for its beneficial exercise, if it can only be. spurred to action and directed into appropriate channels. But there are great difficulties in the way of its most effective operation. It is almost a hopeless task for any individual, acting by himself, to do very much for the benefit of society at large, unless he is possessed of power or wealth. Legislation has done little, because legislatures in general have never had the problem presented to them, or made it a subject of special study. Their views generally represent those of the community from which they come, and the interests which they seek to promote are apt to be temporary in their character, and only such as strike the public at first sight. We may make this clearer by some illustrations as showing the general field of possible action which lies before us.

In thirty or forty years nearly all the people now on the active stage of life in this country will have passed from that stage, and a new generation will have taken their places. To one loving mankind at large the happiness of that coming generation should be the first object. Now, although at first sight it might seem almost hopeless to attempt doing anything for this coming generation, yet by looking more closely we find that its happiness depends almost entirely upon our own actions. To promote its happiness we should bequeath to it physical and moral health, a thorough training in correct principles of action, and such laws and institutions as shall best allow it to promote its welfare. We should avoid allowing it to be en-cumbered by criminals. Love of mankind at large should prompt us to take such measures as shall discourage or prevent the bringing forth of children by the pauper and criminal classes. No measure of repression would be too severe in the attainment of the latter object. The consideration due to a degraded man of any class is as nothing compared with that due to the society of the future. Many a good man has gone to his grave through the failure of society to hang one criminal. No higher or purer source of human happiness exists than the tender sentiments of man towards man. But these very sentiments are a source of enduring injury in the repugnance which they generate to a really effective system of dealing with the dangerous class in our population.

After promoting the birth of good stock, the next step would be its proper education. Here only careful experiment can show what society is able to do. The casual remarks which the budding child hears dropped from its parents at table, and from which he forms an idea of the spirit which animates men, is a more powerful instrument of education, moral or immoral, than any other. This would suggest the foundation of institutions for the correction of children of tender age who are in danger of becoming criminals. But it is an open question whether such institutions are or can be made to succeed. The danger which besets most charitable institutions devoted to the rearing of children is that of being conducted from a sentimental rather than a scientific point of view.

Let us now return to the second form of selfishness which we have described, and which, as just remarked, is in the present state of society, and especially in the United States, a most dangerous one. It is dangerous on account of being vastly more powerful and less repulsive than individual selfishness, while much more injurious to society at large. When we analyze the calls for legislation made upon Congress and the State legislatures, the economic and social theories in the newspapers, and the various factions and parties which contend for influence in political affairs, we find that nearly all have the interests of companies, corporations, or other special classes of men in view, and that it is sought to promote these interests at the expense of those of the public.

The most common example of this motive is seen in the trades-unions and labor organizations which exist in nearly every civilized country. The individual bricklayer would be powerless in a war with society, but his feeling of sympathy with all his fellow-bricklayers who are within reach leads to a union with them, which comprises a general understanding that each individual shall subordinate himself to the union at large for the general benefit of the class of bricklayers. This feeling extends in a diminished degree to similar unions of other trades in the same community, as well as to the unions of other communities. Thus we have a sort of network of sympathy, strongest in binding the individual to those of the same trade who immediately surround him, but yet including within its range all the unions of the land. At first sight there is something which looks praiseworthy in this devotion of man to man, especially when we see, as sometimes hap-pens, a number of individuals voluntarily suffering extreme privation, and perhaps giving up opportunities for profitable employment, in obedience to a supposed interest of their class. Now, what is wanted is that this spirit of sympathy should include not merely the Iimited class which it does; but the whole community. Failing in this, the philanthropist would like to see it confined to such a field as would benefit the community. As things now stand, the organizations are as purely selfish as the most selfish individual, and are at the same time vastly more powerful, and therefore more difficult to control.

We have presented these considerations in order to show the student of political economy what a field there is for the application of what he has learned, if he desires to take an active part in the improvement of society.



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