Commentary

The Meaning of Compassion

In light of events surrounding the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Cato is republishing Mr. Bandow’s op-ed on the importance of private giving when disasters happen.

The United States has suffered few more traumatizing events than the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. But the groundswell of charitable giving afterward demonstrates Americans’ deep compassionate impulse. We must better tap this generosity in the future, to more fully meet the common human needs that are always with us.

Congress, motivated by political as well as humanitarian concerns, voted to cover everything from rescue to rebuilding in New York City. Legislators also established an open-ended victims’ compensation fund, with families of the dead and injured expected to take home as much as a million each.

There’s nothing unusual about federal aid to state and local governments. But the individual assistance package is quite different. There is, after all, nothing compassionate about compulsory charity. Moreover, Washington’s exactions weren’t needed. By the end of October, people had given $1.13 billion extra to private groups. This outpouring came despite a spate of layoffs in the midst of a slowing economy.

As Philanthropy Roundtable President Adam Meyerson observes, the dramatic response “is what’s best about America — we move fast and we’ve always been the most generous.” The Red Cross alone collected about $505 million and recently stopped accepting funds related to the terrorist attacks.

A September television spectacular raised $150 million. School children in Columbia, S.C., collected money to help New York City buy a new fire engine. Chuck Robinson, a retired California fireman and avid fisherman, put out an Internet appeal for fish to help feed New York rescue workers. In two days 2,500 pounds of vacuum-packed fish were sitting in his yard. Of course, America’s diverse, decentralized system is not without fault. Some fraudulent fund-raising schemes have been exposed. Double- or triple- dipping by recipients is possible.

However, politics is a poor substitute for compassionate giving. For instance, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is noted for its role as a congressional pork barrel, distributing money well beyond actual disaster areas, requiring little local contribution to reconstruction efforts and funding gold-plated repairs.

Government attempts to “coordinate” private assistance are little better. In New York, the state Attorney General and New York City Mayor fought over who had primacy. Charitable groups feared having to “cooperate” with a government official who also regulated their activities. Moreover, clusters of charities — to aid firefighters’ families, provide scholarships for victims’ children, address the mental-health needs of victims’ families and survivors — began to work together. Coordination advanced with creation of a common data base, through the efforts of private accounting and computer firms, of terrorist victims.

In any case, the post-Sept. 11 philanthropic gold rush should be the start, not the end, of increased giving. Although many major charities, such as the American Heart Association, say that their contributions remain unchanged, other groups suffered a sharp reduction. One reason is undoubtedly the economy, which was slowing before the terrorist assault. However, some people obviously shifted their funds because of Sept. 11. “The money just went away overnight,” worried Traci Felder of Cleveland’s Make-a-Wish Foundation said a month after the attacks.

Yet pre-terrorist problems have not disappeared. Abundant private giving is particularly important because, as even government policymakers recognize, private organizations generally better meet human needs. Nor is the answer increased government funding of private charities, as proposed by President George W. Bush.

The decision on whom to give is itself an important aspect of every citizen’s obligation to others. Voluntary sacrifice is what makes philanthropy a virtuous act. And only through increased private giving will it be possible to dismantle government programs which have inadvertently had so many adverse consequences — discouraging work and disrupting families, for instance.

The special victims fund is especially problematic for this reason. Simply having public aid available may discourage future giving. Explains Daniel Borochoff of the American Institute of Philanthropy, “I’m really worried that, once it gets out that certain people are going to be getting large sums of money, people could get really turned off to charity and say ‘Forget it. Next disaster, I don’t want to help out.’”

Some of those who rose to the challenge posed by 9/11 recognize the need for more permanent private assistance. For instance, fisherman Robinson has created an organization, “Fish for America.” As he explains: “We’re realizing there’s a constant flow of fish that could be channeled to emergencies, disasters and soup kitchens.”

Americans are a generous people. Over the years, however, government has gradually taken over many charitable services once provided by civil society. But the tragic events of Sept. 11 offer the American people an opportunity to snatch back responsibility for their families, friends and fellow citizens. They, not government officials, should be the ones immediately coming forward to care for those in need, whether victims of personal tragedy, bad economic times or international terrorism.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute.