Thursday, August 6, 2015

Almsgiving, Charity, Assistance

When I turned the page and found the next article in Philanthropy to be written by Andrew Carnegie, my perception of him via his association with the “barons of industry” in the early 1900’s, led me to expect a viewpoint that might be derogatory towards the concept of philanthropy.  But, again, Lapham’s surprised me.

While it is certainly true that Carnegie gained a portion of his wealth by unscrupulous business deals, government favoritism, and poor wages paid to his employees, it is also true that he made good on his belief that, should one accumulate great wealth in this life, he should engage in an active, planned effort to leave this earth with a significant portion of that wealth having been spent in the pursuit of improving the condition of the public.

So, while his view of almsgiving, which might be defined as money given without any strings attached, was that it was not only non-productive, but actually bad for the receiver, he was also just as harsh in his perception of the man who dies with great stores of wealth, never having used any to advance the cause of men.

In essence, the foundation of his belief was that no one is better to decide how great wealth should be spent, as the man who earned it himself.  His disdain for public as well as private charity that handed over money as if the receiver earned the right to it through his/her misfortune was clear.   It wasn’t that he was against all forms of welfare, or almsgiving as he might define it, but that he was judgmental of the actual good such giving provided. 

He was just as negative about leaving great fortunes to one’s children or future family as to charities or causes run by foundations or bureaucrats, who were more likely to spend the money with little appreciation of the work entailed to earn it (family), or who would disperse the money with little consideration for the priorities of the benefactor. 

For Carnegie, providing a little extra money, whether via better wages or direct payments, was of limited use as, in his mind, those with the least were in that predicament due to poor decisions or an inability to think productively.  In effect, he recognized, even embraced his responsibility to ease the pain of mankind, but thought it best that he decide how best to ease that pain.

In that vein, Carnegie funded the building of thousands of public libraries where he thought that all men would be able to access the knowledge to improve their condition in life.  He also encouraged other wealthy men of the time to follow suit by funding parks and other types of recreation areas to benefit man’s spirit.

And charity, where it occurred, should always take the form of assistance that is directed to those that will help themselves.  Again, to harken back to a previous post, charity in the form of helping a man learn to fish rather than merely giving him fish to eat. 

I am less antagonistic towards charity as almsgiving as Carnegie.  I believe there are times when giving without expectation of a return is acceptable, even when that return might be the receiver improving their situation on their own.  I would, however, prefer such charity to have a definitive end, whether it be public welfare in the form of a check, or private charity in the form of food or other such material gifts.  In effect, yes, you need help with no strings attached, but such help, assuming no permanent disability is involved, will end at an appointed time.  While I generally abhor the easily labelled “takers” that the far right loves to demonize, I do agree that generational welfare where those that might benefit as children whose parents get assistance, expect the same assistance in adulthood, must be ended.  Especially when such generational almsgiving permeates an entire community. 

To me, if more people of wealth accepted their responsibility to improve mankind’s condition, as Carnegie did, the world would be better.  Conversely, if more people of want considered charity as assistance as opposed to almsgiving, there might be less need for charity, and more desire to be charitable by those who perceive there is appreciation rather than entitlement.  And best of all, when someday our attitude towards the rich includes a judgement based on how one attained wealth so that those who abused the environment, or mankind to gain riches are considered pariahs as opposed to role models.

But make no mistake, all of us have and will most likely again, experience a time of need and dependence on our fellow man.   Whether from infancy when our parents fed, clothed and protected us, or our teachers who presented the lessons of life, or the mentor who showed us the ropes, or the investor or bank who believed in our vision enough to provide material resources, we all require the aid of others.  Wouldn’t it be that much more sweet if success was less defined on a person to person basis and more defined in the aggregate, whether that aggregate be local, state, country, hemisphere or planet.  

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