(Originally published in the Chapel Hill Herald, 1 January 1991.)
This Christmas season, a season of giving, I suggest we reflect on the nature of giving, particularly of the sort that governments do, through social programs. I expect many may call me Scrooge 末 but take that chance in hope that others will see this as a step in our learning, both to give more effectively and to live more compassionately.
Imagine with me for a moment that you are on a street in a big city. A disheveled person who smells of alcohol approaches you and asks for a dollar for 末 as the person says 末 a hamburger. Suppose that you would gladly give a dollar to get a hamburger into this person's stomach. But, if your reaction is like mine, you may doubt whether the person would actually spend the dollar on a hamburger; it seems possible that the dollar will help buy another bottle of wine.
So at this point some people would say, "walk with me to the fast food store, where I will buy you a hamburger." In this scenario, the giver cannot give money with confidence that it will be spent as the giver would desire, so the giver gives 末 not money 末 but a good which the giver wants the recipient to have.
Whenever giving takes this shape it shows that the giver and the recipient have different values. If the values were the same there would be no reluctance about giving money; money in the hands of the recipient would be spent just as the giver would desire. But, since the values differ, the giver cannot satisfy his goals by giving money.
Most government social programs have this shape. With education, housing, food stamps (the list goes on and on) government gives not money, but a restricted good or service. Evidently the values of the recipients must differ, in most of these cases, from the values of the givers 末 or else the giving could be achieved more simply by giving money. The givers want the recipients to have things that the recipients, given money, would not buy for themselves.
This difference of values makes me think of missionaries going to foreign lands to save natives from native religions. The missionaries, along with those who send the missionaries, presume that their values are correct, are the values by which others should live. Some see this as an expression of compassion; others see it as an expression of arrogance.
When we as individuals or we as a society are considering giving, I think it worthwhile to ask why the prospective recipient lacks what we propose to give. Consider two causes for this lack: circumstance and motivation. By circumstance I mean forces and events outside the recipient that leave the recipient wanting. By motivation I mean the recipient's motives do not jibe with the giver's motives; the recipient and the giver have different values. Of course in most cases of lack we will notice a mix of causes: circumstance and motivation. But, for the light it will shed, let us consider these two causes separately.
When circumstance alone has brought about the lack, then the recipient has motivation, and will be working in whatever ways possible to achieve the condition which we want for him. In this case we could donate money with knowledge that the recipient would direct it to our satisfaction. And, in this case, our gifts will definitely help the recipient toward where we want him to be, because the recipient will have more resources to apply toward the shared goal.
In this case, however, the recipient may achieve the desired end without a gift. This society still offers many avenues from destitution to comfort; a destitute person, with the same values as a comfortable person, may find his way to comfort. A gift may accelerate arrival of the end, but not necessarily change the character of the end.
When motivation alone has brought about the "lack" (I use quotation marks to remind the reader that this lack exits in the eyes of the giver, not the recipient), effective giving becomes a greater challenge. Giving money will not work. Only giving particular goods and services will enrich the recipient with more of those goods and services 末 and not because those goods and services were valued by the recipient, but more because they were free. Giving in this case will be plagued with inefficiency and waste: inefficiency in the effort (or bureaucracy) to deliver the goods and services directly into the lives of the recipients who are not motivated to receive them; waste when the goods and services go unused or unappreciated by the recipients.
Where motivation has caused the "lack," my socialist friends will say that this shows a failure of education 末 that our poor companions have not been educated to know that they should want for themselves what we, educated middle-class folk, want for ourselves. I share many values with my friends: education, safety, housing, nutrition, health. But this is where we differ: I am comfortable with the evidence that others live by values different from my own. I do not assume that the world would be a better place if everyone were educated to live by my values.
In spite of all this, those of us who want to influence our poor companions should not despair. Influence abounds; humans imitate one another if they respect what they see. If we, educated middle-class folk, enjoy the fruits of a truly better set of values, then we can trust that before long our poor companions will want the same. We can lead by letting them see in us what we believe best. But I believe, in the end, we should trust their own self-determination.
During this season of giving many of us will again face firsthand how often we blunder when we try to give something that a recipient will value and use to advantage. I suggest we take this opportunity to reflect upon all the other giving that we do, at secondhand all through the year, through government. And as we reflect on how best we can give from the heart to firsthand recipients, let us consider how best we can give from the heart to secondhand recipients. D
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