Compassion in a Free Society

Column by Jim Davies.

One of the ugliest things said about freedom advocates is that in a society without government, large numbers of poor people would be trampled underfoot. Critics say that if all were free selfishly to pursue our own ends, many would be left behind, to suffer and starve. That such a society would be harsh, uncaring, divisive, mean. That it's necessary to have a government, to make sure that even its poorest members can enjoy a decent standard of living.
Such was the view of Bush the First, who famously promised in his inaugural speech that under his Administration, America would be a "kinder, gentler" nation--so signaling an end to the allegedly free-market, free-wheeling, greedy "Reagan '80s", and a return to compassionate, redistributionist Socialism; and in the years ever since, we've seen that he wasn't kidding.
It's a serious charge, for none of us wants to be mean. But is it true? What will happen, in the coming free society, to compassion and help for the helpless?
Private Charity
In my small town, there are perhaps half a dozen people who are marginally unemployable; their mental capacity is so limited that their labor is not truly worth anything like $7 an hour to any employer; and yet, they are employed.
No doubt there are some others, who are so unfortunate as to be totally unemployable, who can live only in the care either of their families or of an institution. Folk who are born with damaged brains, and so on; and nothing anyone can do can prevent that happening to a small number, and never could. Until the last Century, though, they were cared for by private charity, and I believe that will happen again. I have no doubt at all that, absent taxation, there will be an abundant supply of benefactors only too eager and able to donate the funds needed. But let me return to the "marginals," above.
I hope that the small firms that do employ these simple people do so out of compassion, rather than because of any law compelling them; and I think it is so. If it is, who wins, and who loses?
The employer might seem at first to be the loser; for he is paying out more in wages than the labor is worth--sweeping floors, etc. But, not so fast.
First, his compassion is visible. Customers notice that he's given work to someone in serious need--that he's helping that person, limited though he is, to gain the self-respect of doing work and getting paid. And many of those shoppers will feel good about that. We will patronize his establishment more, as a result, than his competitor's. So, he gets a little more trade (and therefore profit) as a result of his compassion. So maybe he doesn't lose after all. So, if he doesn't lose, who does; do we shoppers lose?
Presumably, we pay a little more as higher prices to the compassionate employer than to the careless one. So it looks as if you and I pay for our compassion. But, again, not so fast. Do we gain nothing, as a result of shopping more often in a store that goes out of its way to help the unfortunate? I think not. What we gain is, like the shopkeeper, a good feeling; the satisfaction of having indirectly helped someone in need. That's a valuable feeling to have! In the coming free society, we shall enjoy a great deal more of it.
Put simply, this private compassion amounts to purchasing self-respect. No, if we just calculate it coldly in those terms ("Ten dollars' worth of feel-good, please!") of course it doesn't work--but when you net it all out, that's exactly what took place: We chose to pay a bit more money, and gained a bit more satisfaction. This is the basis for free-market ethics; not self-sacrifice, but self-respect. And, I'd say, we get a real good bargain.
Now, one essential component of that very satisfying transaction was that we chose to do it. If anyone had made us do it, there would have been no compassion, no bargain, no satisfaction. And even worse, assuming the recipient of our charity knows what's going on, he will gain no satisfaction or self respect either. Instead of sensing that a lot of good people out there love him and want to help, he will know that he's getting helped only because we are being forced to "give" it; that otherwise, we'd not lift a finger to assist. He will reasonably conclude that nobody cares a fig for his existence. All his fragile self-respect, in other words, would go right down the toilet.
Forced "Compassion"
That is exactly what is generally happening now. Government at all levels seizes about $50 out of every $100 we earn, and pretends to spend it on those in need (actually that's a wicked fraud, because less than $6 of that $50 goes anywhere close to those in need)--so relieving us of the necessity to even think about the plight of the needy, on the one hand, and removing our ability much to aid them anyway, on the other.
The inevitable result (however hard the administrators of forced "charity" may try to run a humane operation) is that you and I lose some compassion, and the good feeling we get from having voluntarily assisted someone less fortunate. Simultaneously, instead of gaining the self respect and pleasure of knowing that many good people want to help him, the recipient of "entitlements" is taught that nobody would help if they weren't forced to against their will, and he'd better be grateful to the clerk behind the hand-out desk and to the government for which she works. Can anyone really be surprised if the object of government "pity" should become disillusioned, crushed, hopeless, or bitter?
We saw that, surprisingly, in free and private compassion, there are no losers. The donor gains, the compassionate employer gains, and the donee gains. In government's forced "compassion" system, in contrast, there are no winners! We all resent being taxed, the recipients resent being (apparently) despised, and the administrators lose by having only a thankless, never-ending job of handing over someone else's money to an unending stream of seemingly idle deadbeats.
Such is the wreckage that government has made out of one major part of our humanity. That its leaders openly boast of its merits, just makes me retch.

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Jim Davies's picture
Columns on STR: 243

Jim Davies is a retired businessman in New Hampshire who led the development of an on-line school of liberty in 2006, and who wrote A Vision of Liberty" , "Transition to Liberty" and, in 2010, "Denial of Liberty" and "To FREEDOM from Fascism, America!" He started The Zero Government Blog in the same year.
In 2012 Jim launched , to help lead government workers to an honest life.
In 2013 he wrote his fifth book, a concise and rational introduction to the Christian religion called "Which Church (if any)?" and in 2016, an unraveling of the great paradox of "income tax law" with "How Government Silenced Irwin Schiff."


Thunderbolt's picture

Good one, Jim. Our old enemy, the I.R.S., is indeed the root of all evil, as Frank Chodorov instructed. Putting everyone on a tight budget obviously changes the mindset of the givers.

Glock27's picture

Compassion in a free society.

Sometimes when I hear this I believe it is a dream, the Utopia many long for.

I am not 100% convinced that enough people will honestly step forward, considering the radically, changing values of this Nation of people. Movie producers orient their wares toward corrupting the moral values of Americans, T.V. programing takes the same river of corrupting youth to adult in having strong values and virtue, corperations join the melee with sexually salacious advertisment and sponsor value corrupting programs. Given this peel of humanity it makes one wonder if a compassionate free society isnt being idealistic on such a concept. Please do not take me wrong; I believe what you have presented is a good and proper thought, but I am not convinced of its actual performable in this current state-of-affairs. I also know and understand that the United States Federal Government is corrupt, ignorant, stupid, idiotic, cognitively impaired, selfish, self-interested, self-aggrandizing bunch of misfits and cannot be trusted to perform anything beyond an "F" standard. When they get their stubby, greedy, sticky, dirty hands into anything it seems to always go to hell in a hand basket. This nation has experienced centuries of sexually depraved legislators, deviant, self-centered and what ever else can be attached to them. They have clearly demonstrated that they have no ability to operate a government for the good of the people they are suppose to be protecting.

I simply do not have the faith in all of humanity to do the moral and virtuious thing. Their are a small hand full, but I don't believe there are enough to perform what is honestly needed in helping those whose misfortune was to be born with a defect or to become crippled in such a manner that their ability to care for themselves is gone. Yes, I believe every human being has a moral and ethical obligation to provide some level of assistance. Each person must, of their own volition, decide exactly how much and what they are wiling to contribute. My perspective is that everyone should be morally and ethically obligated to contribute to something. I believe George Sorous should contribute an equal amount to charity as he does to organizations that promote his ideology. (That's me).

I have a son who is afflicted with inadequate social skills and some physical impairment. My wife and I are fortunate in that the Community Mental Health assists him in being able to live his own life away from home and he has a job (at Pizza Hut) paying minimum wage for the past 12 years with no raise, and he gets SSI benefits, (on his own he manages to roam about the city and fair grounds to collect returnable bottles and cans for additional income. Where he learned this level of responsibility I don't know, but annually he collects $300 to $500). Without the SSI benefits he would be at home (and unhappy) for we could never afford to pay what is necessary for him to have an independent life he is leading now. He would have to live with us. What is happenning with him is not a government or responsibility. But because the benefit is there I avail myself to it so he can live as free as he reasonably can.

Jim. It is a wonderful idea which I deeply respect and wish could be a true fact, but given the Human Condition, I fear that it is not something that would happen even in a free society. Exactly how could such a concept enacted for there is a limited number of good hearted people to step up and provide the assistance needed, then there are so many causes how could we ever possibly address them all. When I look at Hollywood and see all the liberals giving piles of money to social progressive, facsist, communist ideologies when it could, to me, be better used in other ways. Exactly how much money does one person really need. Last year Joe Biden donated $5000 to some charity. Whoopie. I donate that much each year just to try and escape the taxes, and it never seems to be enough he. I am being financially raped by the IRS. My motive however, is more centered around avoiding the government from getting Imy money. I put my money where I where I believe it will do the most good, provide the most help. I wonder if I would continue to do the same if I did not have to pay taxes?

You have a good heart Jim, and I accept what you say, and want to believe that a free society would be compassionate, but there are just too many examples out their to anecdotally say differently.

If anyone can shed light upon my darkness I would love to hear (read) it to clear my negative position toward humanity.