Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States

Edited by: Lalor, John J.
Display paragraphs in this book containing:
First Pub. Date
New York: Maynard, Merrill, and Co.
Pub. Date
Includes articles by Frédéric Bastiat, Gustave de Molinari, Henry George, J. B. Say, Francis A. Walker, and more.
208 of 1105

CHARITY, Public.


CHARITY, Public. 1. Principles and Effects of Public Assistance. Mutual aid is a precept dictated by the best sentiments of human nature and which the very constitution of society renders necessary.


—Misfortune excites our pity. Natural law prescribes to us the duty of relieving it, and religion most imperatively recommends it. Christianity is instinct with a tender affection for those whom it calls "the suffering members of Christ." "Help one another!" Does not this command, without which society is impossible, flow from the divine precept: "Love one another?" Moreover, in a political society founded, on the one hand, on the principle of responsibility which leaves each man to the consequences of his faults and makes misery the punishment of improvidence and vice, and on the other, on the principle of inequality which is indispensable to order and progress, but the effect of which is to permit involuntary wretchedness—a wretchedness which falls, as a burden, inevitably on those possessed of assured and ample means of subsistence—the whole question is, how and in what form that assistance shall be given. Shall it remain purely individual, that is to say, in the hands of individuals acting with their own resources alone, and coming into direct contact with the poverty-stricken? Shall it be the work of voluntary associations, which afford more abundant and more regular aid? Shall it be made a matter of public concern by the county or city, or shall it have for organ that collective being known as the state? It is evident that the science of politics is not less interested in the solution of these questions than political economy and morals. They are questions which involve the power, the wealth and the safety almost of the nation. A faulty distribution of assistance by exhausting the sources of public wealth, and by destroying much productive power, strikes a blow, not seldom serious, at the health and vitality of the entire social body. Too many examples, from the days when assistance was dealt out in Rome to the time of the poor laws of England, bear witness to the truth of this statement. It is therefore of the highest political importance to know what rule is to be followed here in a matter thus delicate and dangerous, in which the least error may lead to cruel suffering. Not to relieve misery, and to relieve it by unwise means, are two lines of conduct equally exposed to engender the hatred which divides classes of men, and gives rise to dark discontent and revolution. We shall therefore endeavor to establish, first of all, as clearly and precisely as we can, the principal which governs in this matter of public assistance, a matter so important in itself and so much involved in controversy.


—All charity, no matter how sacred its principle, how indispensable its practice, how useful its effects, has its drawbacks. It runs the risk of perpetuating poverty. Men accustom themselves to depend on aid, they cease to labor and be provident. The will grows weak; the mind loses that generous pride which is the very mainspring of moral life and of the industry which is nobly anxious to provide for itself. Here is the danger. There is not an economist who has not called attention to it. Must we conclude, therefore, that charity should be suppressed? That would be a conclusion as barbarous as it is visionary, but a conclusion which we might perhaps be justified in drawing if, by means unknown to the most advanced civilization, the great majority of men were insured against evil chance or an error of calculation. But even on this chimerical hypothesis, charity would be unable to abstain from action. Misfortune even when deserved would not find it indifferent. Charity which takes pity even on crime and vice, would not remain insensible to suffering resulting from a simple want of foresight or some degree of carelessness. The privations of a man who has fallen by his own fault acquire at times such a degree of intensity that society itself could not look on them unmoved and refuse him all help. Policy which is calculating, just as charity is guided by feeling and duty, will always be loath to reduce a human being to despair by leaving him no alternative but theft or suicide. If the help thus given saves from the abyss the person who receives it, both policy and charity will congratulate themselves on the fact. If he does not improve his condition, they try nevertheless to prevent the unfortunate from dying of hunger. But it is imperative to regulate relief in such a way that the culpable improvidence, which it frequently generates, shall be reduced to a minimum. In this lies the difficulty in the way of assistance, and this difficulty becomes manifest to a greater or less extent according to the form it takes. Who would not understand, even if experience had not shown it in so striking a manner, that individual charity could not have precisely the same moral and economic effects as charity organized in vast associations, and that this in turn would be different from the public assistance which takes the name of state charity? A policy jealous of the interests of the people, and the future of the state, should therefore examine and compare with the greatest care these three kinds of assistance, as to their principles and their results upon the minds and condition of those who receive them.


—The most blameless, the most sacred, the most beautiful of all forms of assistance is the individual charity born of the impulse of the heart and the heroism of devotion, which, looking on the human race as one family, inquires into the sufferings endured by this one or that of its members; and which, not satisfied with throwing down a few pennies under the momentary empire of pity or importunity, goes out to meet the unfortunate, visits him in his abode, and, with delicate discernment adjusts the aid given to the extent of the need, and dresses the wounds of misery with tact and even with tenderness. Charity is admirable where it is voluntary and spontaneous, and where it establishes the mild and powerful bond of attachment and gratitude between him who gives and him who receives. How could hatred and envy find a place in minds brought into close relation by the strongest and deepest feelings of the human heart? The merit of this charity in the eyes of the statesman and philanthropist, is that it is exposed to fewer errors, that it reaches real suffering, that it infuses a kind of modesty into the recipient and places a certain limit to the acceptance and asking of aid. In the case of such charity, there is less risk that the beneficiaries will carry on a shameless traffic in assistance and lose the salutary check of shame.


—But whatever economists may say on the matter, isolated charity is not sufficient too many cases of misery escape its notice. By a tendency common to every powerful and permanent feeling, charity is obliged to have recourse to the power of association. It must be organized in such manner as to increase its resources on the one hand, and on the other to supply aid with a regularity of which individual action, always limited and somewhat capricious, is not capable. Such is the object of charitable associations. They reach misfortune and adapt themselves to its manifold forms with an efficacy which private assistance could never attain. Charitable associations are the means of doing much good. Only it is to be feared that, in assuming an administrative form, these associations may destroy the affectionate relations between the benefactor and the recipient, and that charity may begin to have its pensioners who count upon its aid as upon an assumed income.


—The third species of assistance is that represented by the county, municipality or state. It, also, does a good which associations could not always do. It has more wealth at its disposal and is better organized. Such state or municipal charity has an extent and sometimes a grandeur to which that of private associations can rarely aspire. While noting these circumstances, political science should not forget that some of the drawbacks which attach to private charitable associations are much more apparent here and in an almost fatal form. It is no longer with charitable men that the befriended individual has to deal, but with officials. Hence a certain curtness which takes from charity its amiable and tender character, and puts the coldness of official relations in its place. Hence fewer scruples on the part of him who asks relief, and less affection on the part of those who are nothing more than salaried distributors of assistance. The aid funds then become a kind of plunder, the better part of which the most adroit and most audacious strive to bear away. These are the considerations which have caused economists generally to pass so severe a judgment upon assistance given by the state, a judgment which has caused their science to be accused of pitiless harshness. Such certainly was not their intention when they reproached legal charity with increasing the number of the poor, and creating more misery than it removed. Let us recognize the fact, however, that they have at times condemned state assistance too absolutely. Its legitimateness lies in its necessity. There is suffering of a kind that demands a prompt remedy and immense sacrifices of money or the employment of means which the state alone can command in sufficient quantity. The assistance rendered by the state to the needy is sometimes recommended as an act of justice even or at least of equity. Does the state owe no aid to its servants grown infirm in its service, and who have not attained the age when a pension is their right, or to their widows, or orphans of a tender age? Is it not sometimes equitable, even when the law does not make it an obligation, to accord some indemnity to those whom certain measures of general utility have crippled in their resources? Why should prudence not make it obligatory on the state, no matter what the purely economical objections may be, to help those whose sudden poverty has become a menace and a peril to society? Are there not cases in which humanity itself cries out? What is to be done with the poor in times of commercial depression, whom private charity is powerless to feed and who fall exhausted by the wayside? Let us suppose that fire has destroyed a village, or that an inundation has extended its ravages over a whole country. What can fit the remedy to the evil unless it be public assistance? It is the same with certain diseases, the care of which demands a more regular attendance than that which private charity can afford, and more means than are at the disposal of voluntary associations. Unfortunately aid must also be extended to healthy men. Here, above all, moderation is difficult. It is a matter of experience, which can not be too often recalled, that the slightest regular aid nourishes idleness and generates pauperism. There are brutal natures who would rather content themselves with the most miserable pittance, upon which they might count with certainty, than yield themselves to the least continuous labor. It is to them and to the excess of assistance unmeasured and unenlightened that the sadly significant words of William Stone, an English author, are applicable. The words were spoken of a weaver, a type of this whole class of beneficiaries without heart and without dignity. He was, says Stone, born for nothing, nursed for nothing, reared, taught, clothed for nothing; he learned a trade for nothing, was ill and cured for nothing, married and had children for nothing, who came to the world and lived like their father, for nothing, till their death, then received a shroud, a grave and prayers for nothing.


—We do not intend to relate in detail England's experience with the poor tax. It is but too well known that the obligation imposed on the parishes, of finding work for able bodied paupers, of caring for the infirm, for foundlings, and in general for all persons unable to earn their living by labor, acted as a premium paid to improvidence, as an encouragement to laziness, to premature marriages and to the increase of poor families. The reform bill of 1834, called forth partly by the writings of Malthus, while maintaining the principle of legal charity, introduced into the organization intended to realize it, two important modifications, to wit: 1, the obligation of parishes to group themselves into unions, for the levying of the tax, and the distribution of aid, where the higher authorities think proper to so order it; 2, the establishment of workhouses, where all able bodied paupers were obliged to go, under pain of being deprived of all share in the poor tax, and where they are submitted to a régime of restraint and privation with separation of the sexes and of ages. This reform, introduced into English legislation, produced happy results. A saving of $8,000,000 was realized immediately, and $15,000,000 in 1837. Still the poor tax in England recently amounted to nearly $20,000,000. A single house of charity which in 1840 had admitted only 767 homeless poor, received 6,300 in 1846, and 11,674 in 1847. But in spite of the tax the number of beggars increased; in 1847 there were 265,000 depending on other than legal charity.


—The situation has improved since then; but is it to the poor tax that we are to attribute the improvement? It must be attributed to causes of well being with which political economy is well acquainted, to the development of industry, the abundance of capital, the increase of wages, and the freedom of trade.


—How can we doubt the truth that state assistance when regular, perpetuates pauperism, when it is known that in the 15 years preceding 1856, the number of names inscribed in the charity bureaus of Belgium rose from 400,000 to 1,000,000? Must we see in this increase only the proof of the fact that many paupers were not inscribed in them before? We do not think so. There are communes in western Flanders where the number of paupers is invariable, whatever be the state of labor and the price of provisions. In speaking of the charity bureaus of France, M. Watteville remarks: We see to-day enrolled on the registers the names of the grandsons of paupers admitted to public assistance in 1802, while the sons of these had in 1830 in like manner been put on the list. It is thus that the condition of pauper becomes almost a hereditary profession Many parishes in England presented this same scandalous spectacle. What do you do? asked a traveler of a tolerably well dressed man who was walking with a cane. "I am a pauper," answered the latter, just as a man would have said he was a sailor, a miner, or a weaver.


—One of the consequences most detrimental to justice and to the wealth of a country which public assistance entails, whether the assistance is given in the form of aid by work or of alms, is that this assistance is levied in part on the fund destined to feed what has been known as the wage fund. Assistance thus becomes a tax imposed on workmen who receive no assistance. It is to them a source of fresh embarrassment. Now add to this the competition of subsidized labor, and the result is that the assistance given to their prejudice tends to force them to have recourse to assistance themselves. There is only a certain amount of work to be disposed of.


—What should political science conclude from these views borrowed from observation? That we should endeavor rather to limit than extend legal assistance; that its practice should be such as to detract as little as possible from the moral force of those whom it benefits, and that if possible it should even aid this moral force, which it does when it saves an individual from discouragement, or when it takes the form of instruction given gratuitously to those who are unable to bear its expense. Except in this case it is only a palliative. How can we avoid being struck by the fact that in a time of famine it has not been given to charity to create a single bushel of wheat, to make up the deficit in the harvest? It is to be remarked also, shocking as the proposition may appear at first, that as the wealthy who buy bread for the poor, do not eat a morsel of bread the less on that account themselves, it follows that such bread is taken from the share of the non-assisted poor. We have no idea of denying the benefits of charity because of this. In reality the aided poor being considered the most unfortunate ran the risk of dying of hunger, but well-to-do people took what they gave from their own savings. What does this example and so many others show but that assistance does not increase the resources upon which workmen live? These severe lessons of political economy do not go so far as to do away with assistance, a point which can not be dwelt upon too much. It is proper that this should be kept in mind that there may be no illusion on the subject. The poor man reduced to sad extremity must be assisted, and his life must not be embittered by the sad feeling of his being forsaken. This has been recognized by the economist who passes for the most systematic adversary of public assistance. Let us not forget, says Malthus, speaking of disastrous periods, that humanity and true policy demand imperatively the giving to the poor of all the assistance which the nature of things allows to be given them. It is important to know well what this nature of things is. The state in matters of assistance is bound to conform to certain rules. There is, so to speak, a policy of assistance. What this policy is we shall now point out.


—II. Rights and Duties of the State in the Matter of Assistance. Two extreme opinions have been upheld relative to public assistance. On the one hand, it was denied that the state had the right to perform acts of benevolence, for the reason that it could do so only by taking from some of its members to give to others. Taxes, it is added, are paid back to those who contribute them in the form of moral and material advantages by the state. The tax payer's sacrifice has its compensation. In case of assistance this sacrifice is a pure loss. It is a species of spoliation. On the other hand, it was maintained that assistance is not a charitable duty on the part of the state, but the strict right of the assisted party. We know under what circumstances the famous thesis of the right to assistance in France was produced, which had for corollary the right to labor—a thesis developed in books and journals at a period when everything was called in question, from the bases of society to the facts of the day.


—To question the right of the state to assist in a certain measure the classes suffering from poverty is, in our eyes, only an exaggeration of the logic of laisser faire and laisser passer, a maxim good in itself, but the abuses of which should be avoided. Side by side with the individual and his action, there is a principle with which we must reckon, the principle of solidarity. Society is not a simple juxtaposition of individuals; it is a living organism; and the state which represents it is also to a certain point a moral person, a sort of collective individuality, which society itself intrusts with doing that which it could not do through each of its members standing alone. The state does not exceed its rights in performing acts of charity. How could it if, in doing so, it filled not only the rôle of benefactor to those it assisted, but performed also a duty of social prudence, and of preservation in certain cases?


—As to the right of the individual to ask public or legal assistance, as a thing rigorously due him, how can we avoid looking on its assertion as one of the grossest errors of the socialist school? What is a right and what does it imply? Every real right brings with it this consequence, that it can not be denied an individual without real oppression. The vindication of this right, when all other means of obtaining the exercise of it have failed, may go so far even as to justify the use of force. Are not the most decided adversaries of revolution constrained to admit that there have been rightful revolutions? Is the pretended right to assistance of such a character? By no means. Can I in truth call myself oppressed, because the government does not take money from tax payers' pockets to meet my wants? Should not all aid be received with gratitude, as something not due? The right to live has been invoked as the basis of the right to assistance. What is meant by this? Is the right to live one which the state should and can enforce? I have the right to support myself, to breathe, to go and to come; that is to say, no one has the right to take measures or commit acts to hinder me from doing these things; but it is not the duty of the state to procure them for me. Otherwise we should look on the state as a producer and distributer of wealth, and hence as communistic. I have the right to live, and to live even a hundred years, if I can, was the just answer given the French socialist orators in 1848, but not that others should be charged with my support. The state has fulfilled its task when it insures me the right to live by sheltering my person from violence, when it insures the free exercise of my labor by a good police system, and guarantees me the possession of its fruits. The right to live can not give me any power over the results of other men's labor. To take up arms to obtain assistance, is not the exercise of a right but an act of violence. The man most pressed by hunger who steals a loaf of bread, may have done a deed deserving the judge's pity, no doubt, but he has none the less committed a theft.


—The right and the duty of the state in the matter of assistance would seem to be sufficiently well stated in these observations which we have thought it our duty to insist upon in this work, intended to set forth the fundamental principles of all social and political questions. State like individual aid should be free. To force it, is to change the principle of all governments which have liberty, responsibility and property as their foundation. It is to become a spoliator, and a traitor to justice, under pretense of completely realizing the dogma of fraternity.


—The state's policy of assistance reduces itself to this rule: to intervene only in cases of real necessity, and when individuals or associations are unable to act as effectually. In this latter case the state should endeavor to lend to assistance the forms which best accord with the principles of personal responsibility, which alone constitute personal dignity and secure the permanent well being of individuals. It should avoid as much as possible everything which weakens the family spirit. It is not for those who are united by the ties of blood to call on a social providence to discharge their duties for them. If there were some form of assistance which could help the unfortunate individual to recover, and give him strength for the future, the state should adopt it by way of preference. It should also examine whether there are not cases in which wisdom prescribes that it should not act itself, but aid charitable associations in the work of assistance.


—III. Forms of Assistance. Every age has its share of infirmity and evil, difficult, if not impossible, to avoid. The best division of the means of assistance is that which keeps in view the three ages of man: infancy, maturity and old age. It is the one adopted by M. Thiers, in his general report in the name of the commission of assistance and public provision presented to the French national assembly during the sitting of Jan. 26, 1850.


—That infancy recommends itself in too many cases to public assistance, we can not deny. Here there can be no responsibility nor the possibility of self-support. It is true that the family has been created by Providence to come to the assistance of the mental and physical weakness of the child. The whole difficulty here lies in reconciliation of these two principles: the sacred interest of the infant which can not be ignored, neglected nor abandoned, and the family spirit, which we must avoid weakening. There are circumstances in which the family, no matter how well intentioned it may be, is powerless to give the child the help which it needs. Such is, for example, the case of an infant born lacking one of its senses. What can be more admirable than the institutions for deaf-mutes and blind children? Is it in the bosom of the family that the child could learn to supplement the organs which it lacks, by a further development of those which remain to it? The institutions intended for the reception of infancy from the most tender age until the school years, crèches, and asylums, are much praised. Their object is to take the place of the mother who can not nurse her new born infant, or is obliged to labor far from her child. It is difficult, however, not to recognize that these philanthropic institutions which have multiplied so rapidly in France, have put some mothers too much at ease with their duties, and the good which they do is not an unmixed one.


—The assistance of the state in the case of the child extends to all the conditions of its physical and moral life. Almost all publicists are at one in acknowledging that it should above all afford the child the means of instruction. Assistance given in the form of instruction is the best of all. It has this very commendable character, that it places him who receives it in a condition to dispense with all other assistance. There are other forms of assistance for childhood. Is not the contract of apprenticeship a legitimate object of the care of the legislator? It has been contended that the same is true of the fixing of the hours of labor in factories. Such a regulation, however, does not encroach in the least on the legitimate power either of the father of a family or the manufacturer: neither of whom should be allowed to violate the laws of morality, or to exhaust the strength of the young creature whose guardian the state becomes when its natural guardians fail to do their duty.


—It is when we come to people of mature age that the most delicate questions arise. This is the time when man is usually in the full enjoyment of his intellectual faculties and his physical power. If in exceptional circumstances public assistance must come to his aid, it should not be allowed to take the place of his own endeavors and forethought. This is the rock on which so many philanthropic efforts, and more than one administrative measure have been wrecked. Rules established to raise wages in an artificial manner, the forced limitation of working hours, the organization of labor in the ateliers nationaux, aid distributed to healthy men without motive or sufficient discrimination, are open to the serious objection of rendering the individual indifferent to his fate, of weakening his energy, and of disturbing labor. Such, for instance was the outcome of an institution really praiseworthy in its charitable intent, that of workshops for poor women. These are admitted in a warm building and assured wages in exchange for their labor. What is the result? In one of these workshops in Paris the making of a shirt is as low as twenty-five centimes. At the Salpêtriere it is not more than ten centimes, and the making of twenty pieces of baby linen does not amount to more than one franc and ten centimes. How can free operatives meet such competition? How can the mother who works at home earn enough to feed and bring up her children?


—Does this mean that assistance can not be given to mature age without radical drawbacks which cause the evil to outweigh the good? We do not think so. Are not savings banks a striking proof of this useful interference, at least at the inception of aid institutions if one may give this designation to an institution of credit, which more than any other brings the power of responsibility into play? Societies of mutual assistance give rise to the same reflections. They present the characteristic well worthy of our sympathy, of uniting in the body of the same institution the principle of responsibility which urges to labor, to save, with the solidarity or charity which is the happy corrective of whatever there is narrow and egotistical in personal motives. As to assistance under the form of work in times of crises or lack of employment, it does not present, perhaps, insoluble difficulties. M. Thiers, in France, undertook to show this in his report. Although political economy has in general reproached this remarkable paper with yielding too large a field to assistance, even in theory, it can not, to our thinking, but approve the idea of reserving certain public works for periods of distress and revolution, instead of being too prodigal of them in time of prosperity. Thus, instead of improvising fruitless occupations on the spur of the moment, the state would hold itself ready in such manner as not to be forced to wait in a moment of urgency for plans, estimates and votes in the matter of public works. It would be well to reserve for these general crises which are more or less periodical, the work of building fortified places, digging ditches, putting up walls, laying out certain roads, etc.


—There is need also of caring for natural diseases, as well as those of advanced age. This is done in the hospitals and almshouses. These have been often condemned as institutions antagonistic to labor and the family. Here again moderation is necessary. Not all have a family capable of receiving and nursing them. There are diseases of such a nature that the sufferer must be removed for the sake of public health, or which require more continuous or costly care than a poor family can give them. In this case private individual charity could not alone suffice. It is said truly that it is dangerous to suggest to families the idea of getting rid of their members by leaving to others the care which duty exacts of them. From this it has been concluded that home remedies are preferable. But are they always possible? Must we look unmoved on the wretched care given by poor families to their sick members in difficult cases, or the detestable hygienic conditions in which they live? Can doctors go to a hundred places the same day gratuitously? Is there not here something touching and fitted to reconcile the heart of the poor man with society—which he sometimes accuses of harshness—since he receives the care of the best trained and distinguished experts? How can almshouses for the infirm and incurables be condemned? Still it is the almshouses, even those for the aged, which have given rise to the greatest number of well-founded objections. The admission of aged persons in good health seems to present the greatest difficulties. This prospect of the almshouses for the poor classes renders some improvident, and creates culpable callousness in those who should support the head of the family, who has become incapable of hard labor.


208 of 1105

Return to top