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

Edited by: Lalor, John J.
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Includes articles by Frédéric Bastiat, Gustave de Molinari, Henry George, J. B. Say, Francis A. Walker, and more.
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CHARITY, State. I. State charity, public charity, official charity, these are expressions often used the one for the other, although each of them has a very distinct meaning. And so it is with the words poverty, indigence, misery, pauperism, which designate the objects of charity. The language of science has suffered from the confusion prevailing in this respect in everyday language. Let us endeavor to define carefully the sense in which we shall employ these words, so that we may not add to the difficulties already existing those of an ambiguous or variable terminology. Of the first three expressions the widest in meaning is undoubtedly state charity, comprising, as it does, every kind of charity administered by a public authority in the name of the state, of the municipality or any other territorial division, whether by furnishing funds or by organizing or distributing relief.


—When the authorities intervene by virtue of laws imposing upon them, more or less explicitly, the duty of helping the poor in general, or certain classes of the poor in particular, this charity we may define as legal charity. The intervention of the authorities in so far as the distribution and application of relief is concerned, may be called official charity. Legal charity and official charity, where they exist, are comprised under the term public charity; but this latter can exist without either legal or official charity. The state may aid, without being obliged by law to do so, purely private charitable institutions, as for instance, mutual aid societies, etc. When the funds destined for purposes of public charity are obtained by means of taxes levied expressly for that object, such taxes are called the poor tax.


—The word poverty expresses but a relative idea. The poor are, in all countries, the class subject to the greatest privation. On the other hand, the words indigence and indigent express an absolute idea, viz., that degree of poverty which implies the deprivation of things necessary to existence, and implies consequently the need of charitable assistance.


—By misery we mean the poverty which, grown permanent through the permanent causes that engender it, generally produces absolute indigence and manifests itself in the poor by a characteristic number of physical and moral habits. We reserve the word pauperism for that kind of misery which, being produced by general causes, constitutes the normal condition of whole classes of individuals.


—II. In all nations whose history is known to us, wealth has been unequally distributed, and consequently there have been rich and poor. Poverty is, therefore, a universal fact. This is not the case with indigence, nor misery, and especially not with pauperism. Both historically and in theory, indigence is a product of charity. That a number of families incapable of procuring the means of subsistence strictly necessary to life by their own efforts might exist, it was imperative that a portion of the revenue of the rich should first have been distributed to poor people by public or private charity.


—Let us imagine a primitive nation, in which no religious, moral or political motive has awakened the liberality of the rich toward the poor, and in which, consequently, the poor do not rely upon any generosity on the part of the rich or on the part of the ruler who governs them. Indigence in such a country would be dreaded as much as pestilence or any other affliction, since it would be a no less certain cause of suffering and death. Hence all the powers of the poor man would tend to the one end: the preservation of the means of subsistence which he possessed. If his labor no longer suffices to support him, inevitable and speedy destruction threatens him. Feeble or timid, he dies of misery; strong and courageous, he has recourse to theft, to brigandage, and soon meets with a violent death. In any case, his terrible fate is an exceptional fact which strikes with fear all who might possibly meet with a similar one, and which prevents the propagation of the scourge. Under such circumstances indigence can not exist as a social disease and as such attract the attention of the legislator. The western political communities of ancient times were organized in a manner that excluded indigence and misery; the poor in such communities were not isolated and abandoned to themselves; they were grouped around the rich in large numbers, in the family by the bonds of slavery, in the city by those of patron and client. The master had an interest in the preservation of his slaves who constituted his wealth; and the patron had an interest in ensuring the well being of his clients whose numbers and good will were his power in the city. It was only after the bonds which grouped the poor around the rich had been slackened, and an independent plebeian class devoted to trade or to the mechanic arts had by degrees sprung up in the cities, that misery, that is, extreme and permanent poverty, manifested itself: then they obtained from the wealthy, either by selling them their votes or exciting their pity, regular bounties, and this soon raised indigence, followed by mendicity, to the rank of normal facts, of organic and henceforth incurable affections of the social body.


—Although the polytheism of the Greeks and the Romans did not make almsgiving a religious duty, private charity, with its abuses, soon introduced itself among them. Plautus, who wrote during the third century before the Christian era, and who only copied the Greek comedians, places in the mouth of one of his personages (Frinummus) this entirely Malthusian sentence: De mendico male meretur qui ei dat quod edet aut quod bibat; nam et illud quod dat perdidit, et illi producit ad vitam miserrimam.*41


—In the east, on the contrary, religion made charity a positive duty. The sacred books of the Hindoos, the Persians and the Jews went so far as to prescribe the amount of alms the wealthy should give the poor. The Koran, without prescribing a minimum, lays down in several places the religious precepts concerning charity. Thus indigence and mendicity attained in the eastern nations a development against which only the unchangeable organization of theocratic nations was capable of resisting.


—Christianity—which is superior to other religions in this, that it makes a religious duty of everything which can inspire love for one's neighbor, but which none the less recommends almsgiving as a chief manifestation of such love, as an essential form and fruit of charity—caused numerous institutions to be established in the Roman empire, destined for the relief of various classes of poor, while the abundant alms distributed by monasteries and the clergy gave to the increase of mendicity an impulse the effects of which are still visible in several countries of modern Europe.


—Nevertheless, neither ancient nations nor those of the middle ages were acquainted with pauperism, that form of misery which extends to entire classes of the population and becomes their normal condition, by reason of the causes which favor the increase of wealth and the growth of general prosperity. In former times the poor were grouped around the rich, the working classes around property, in such a manner as to prevent the formation of a proletariat, that is to say, of an independent working class, subject by their very independence to the immediate and constant action of the laws which regulate the distribution of wealth.


—Under the successors of Constantine, at a time when indigence was already very widespread, and had, on more than one occasion, called for the interference of the legislator, we find that the laws destined to remedy the evil contained striking proofs of the influence which was still exercised by slavery still present in Roman society at the time of the downfall of the empire, and by the serfdom which tended little by little to replace it. In a constitution, of which Justinian has preserved a fragment, the emperors Gratian, Valentinian and Theodosius proposed to put an end to the abuse of mendicity. Did they intend, in order to attain this object, to establish workhouses, asylums, home assistance; in one word, to practice public charity? They simply decreed that ablebodied mendicants should be arrested; that if slaves, they should be returned to their masters; and that those who were free should be reduced to slavery. Later, slavery was replaced by servitude in the case of the agricultural poor and by trades corporations and political and religious confraternities in the case of city poor. The poor man who did not find admission into any of these groups, ceased to belong to any class of workmen whatever, and in some sense to society itself. Mendicity or brigandage then became his only resources; and mendicity, practiced on a large scale, as an industry, so to speak, as the only expedient of large numbers of the poor, often assumed the character of brigandage. We have all heard of those organized bands of mendicants, who under different names, appeared in former times, in the large cities in Europe, and went from country to country, carrying with them their vulgar cunning and disgusting manners. But this wretched condition of whole multitudes whom industry had cast away from it, differs essentially from pauperism, which attacks the working classes even in the centres of industry, of the very industry which had attracted them thither.


—The dissolution of ancient social groups, the emancipation of agricultural and industrial laborers, alone could give birth to the proletariat and with it to pauperism; but it is only since the commencement of the present century that this scourge has, in some countries, assumed alarming proportions. A system which, by giving every workman the liberty to choose his trade, to change it at will, to offer his labor to whomsoever he pleases and at what price he will, and which leaves him, at the same time, exposed to all the effects of competition and to all the chances of life, good and bad, could not help sooner or later, under the force of certain circumstances, but create, in the general condition of the poorest among the working class of a country or some certain industry, a lamentable crisis, marked by a temporary interruption of the demand for labor or by an exceptional lowering of wages. The advantages of this system to society in general, and also to the laboring classes taken as a body, are immense and incontestable. Often even the immediate cause of partial or temporary crises which produce pauperism are conquests made by industry, absolute progress, the proximate and definitive result of which proves beneficial to the poor working classes and ameliorates their condition. But the suffering inseparable from distress which extends to hundreds, perhaps to thousands, of families, were this distress to last but a few days, is none the less cruel and felt none the less by those who experience it.


—Legislators, statesmen and writers have not waited for this last phase of the development of poverty in order to busy themselves, some actively, others theoretically, with the lot of the poorer classes, and to devise means by which to render it more tolerable. Misery and mendicity, these two old and open wounds of the social body, produced by the imprudent, thoughtless or abusive liberality of private charity, have raised grave questions in the solution of which, religion, public peace, humanity and morality are equally interested.


—The necessity of a solution of these questions was felt more than ever at the time of the reformation, when the suppression of a great number of monasteries and the secularization of a considerable part of the property of the church had, if not exhausted, at least turned into other channels, the former abundant gifts of private charity, and when a disastrous and prolonged war, in which all the nations of Europe were more or less involved, had destroyed or consumed unproductively the capital accumulated by preceding generations. Hence the most important law that was ever passed for the relief of the poor, dates from the end of the sixteenth century. We refer to the famous statute of queen Elizabeth, which introduced simultaneously into England legal charity, and the poor tax, by imposing on each parish the obligation of relieving its disabled poor and of furnishing its ablebodied poor with work.


—After this period no book treating of natural law, public law or political economy has been published in which the question of poverty has not been discussed more or less completely, and there is scarcely one of the numerous solutions proposed which has not been tried by some nation or other. Public charity like poverty has become a universal fact, a social necessity which is no longer a matter of discussion, although many of those who admit it consider it an evil, and do not think themselves bound to tolerate it except within certain limits and under certain forms.


—III. A question properly put, is half solved. It is because the questions relating to charity have nearly always been incorrectly put, that they have received so many different or contradictory answers, and that they have appeared insoluble to so many otherwise enlightened minds.


—It is not the business of the economist to investigate what should be done by a humane and Christian nation, in which indigence, misery and pauperism are found in any degree, nor to lay down a rule of conduct for the legislators who govern such a nation. Such a question far exceeds the limits of political economy. Many and grave motives perfectly foreign to this science may counterbalance those borrowed from it, and justify laws or measures which are contrary to the principles of political economy. We do not affirm that it is generally or always so; we simply maintain that it does not come within the province of political economy to weigh and judge of motives which are foreign to it, and to decide in what case these motives should prevail.


—Poverty in all its forms is an economic phenomenon; a phenomenon of the distribution of social wealth. What are the laws or the general causes governing this phenomenon? These laws once known, what is the effect, on the distribution of social wealth, of a proposed institution, of a proposed system of assistance or charitable act? Such are the terms in which the questions relative to poverty are formulated in political economy. Political economy can and must be able to say whether such or such a law, such or such a measure, having for its object to remedy indigence, misery or pauperism, under certain given circumstances, will attain its object fully or in part. Its domain reaches thus far and no further.


—It is then without any kind of foundation, and because of the strangest confusion of ideas, that political economy has so often been accused of being inhuman, cruel and unmerciful, as if it were responsible for the evils it explains or foresees, for the evils the effects of which it investigates and the causes of which it lays bare. We might with as much reason reproach medical science with seeking and enumerating the disastrous results of certain diseases, certain organic defects, certain accidents to which the poor are particularly exposed. If it should happen that the application of an economic principle became really inhuman and barbarous, the fault would not be with the science but with those who had applied it without discretion, and without having weighed beforehand the considerations or the facts by which the principle should have been modified. And then, where are the principles of our science, at least among those we recognize as true, which do not tend toward the improvement of the condition of men, poor or rich, and notably of the working class? Political economy, our readers will soon be convinced, teaches nothing that can alarm an intelligent philanthropist. Let us begin by searching for the law of the phenomenon.


—Indigence, misery, pauperism, the only forms of poverty that can be considered as absolute evils, manifest themselves only in one class of society, in that of the working class, who depend upon their work for a livelihood, because they possess no other source of revenue, or because they possess it in an insufficient measure. Now, in the case of the individuals of this class indigence may result either from their not having worked in proportion to their real or artificial wants, or from the fact that the price of their labor is not sufficient to insure them the necessaries of life. Insufficiency of labor, insufficiency of wages: these are the two causes of indigence, misery and pauperism.


—Insufficiency of labor may result from the poor having left their work to satisfy artificial wants, from their misbehavior or from accidents independent of their will. In all of these cases the poor have been wanting in foresight. Knowing what his labor could bring him, and what would be required for the satisfaction of his most indispensable wants, knowing also that human weakness exposed him to infirmities of different kinds, that is to say, to forced interruptions of work, he has not fixed beforehand the quantity of his work and the quantity of his outlay, in accordance with these data, which, in a great part, can be easily and certainly determined.


—As to the insufficiency of wages, it results invariably from the competition of the workingmen themselves; in other words, from the too large supply of labor compared with the demand, or with the quantity of disposable productive capital. This excess in the supply of labor may result from the fact that the number has increased more rapidly than productive capital; and then it evidently has as its first cause, the improvidence of the class who depend on their labor for a livelihood, and who ought to have foreseen that by increasing their numbers they would destroy the equilibrium between their income and their wants. The excess may also result, it is true, in a given place or in a given industry, from the fact that a portion of the capital employed has become unproductive, or that it has changed form or destination. For instance, a commercial outlet has been closed; a rival industry has received an unexpected development; the capital, formerly employed in the remuneration of human labor, has been invested in costly machinery. The very increase of wages has a manifest tendency to provoke these different changes in the employment, and consequently in the distribution of capital. But as these changes are nearly always local and temporary, as they do not necessarily involve an absolute diminution in the amount of productive capital employed in the country, and as they frequently have for effect a more rapid accumulation of this same capital, they can plunge only improvident workmen into indigence, workmen who, in their economic life, had not taken any account of future contingencies. Improvidence is, therefore, the first and radical cause of misery and pauperism. Destroy this root—do away with this aggregate of vicious habits, of wrong calculations and thoughtless actions which may be expressed by the word improvidence—and you at once do away with all three evils. The duty of foresight, like all duties, needs a sanction, and, in the natural order of things, this sanction is not wanting to it. It is the responsibility weighing upon every family, the concatenation of causes and effects which condemn the improvident workman to suffering in his own person or in the persons of the members of his family; it is misery, the menaces of which are ever sounding in the ears of the needy, and which is always at his heels, ready to make him atone by privation, by physical and moral suffering, for the least idleness, the least vicious habit.


—What are the means of weakening this responsibility and of neutralizing the sanction resulting therefrom? They would consist in breaking the chain which connects effects with their causes; in so arranging it that destitution, privation and disease should no longer be to the poor the natural consequences of an insufficiency of work or of an insufficiency of wages. Such, in fact, is the part played by charity, both private and public, when it takes upon itself the task of assisting the indigent and alleviating misery. This is the end toward which all its works tend, whether it relieves the poor from the care of providing for and educating their children; whether it provides for the wants of those who, either by sickness or old age, have been rendered incapable of working; whether it distributes assistance, under one form or another, to those whose labor can find no market or is insufficiently remunerated. The practice of charity is incompatible with complete responsibility on the part of the poor, that is to say, with the complete sanction of the duty of foresight, and this sanction must exist in direct proportion to the degree of activity displayed by charity and to the extent of its labors. This truth is too evident to be dwelt on longer. Assistance and responsibility are two ideas which mutually exclude each other, the one being implicitly the negation of the other. Can charity replace responsibility in such a manner as to render it superfluous? In other words, can charity by providing for the wants of all the indigent and relieving all misery, relieve the poor of the duty of foresight? It might if indigence were susceptible of assignable limits; if it had a determinable maximum which it could never exceed, and which itself could not exceed the means at the disposal of charity. But it is not so, at least not as a rule. Let 100 represent the actual wants of indigence at a given period and in a given place. If charity provides entirely for the wants of the indigent, the encouragement it gives to improvidence will be felt by the entire class of the non-assisted poor, the unknown number of whom is perhaps a hundred times that of the actually indigent; and therefore improvidence will unceasingly tend to increase as a consequence of the very guarantees given it against the fatal results of its growth. Thus, an amount of assistance equal to 100 will have as its result, beginning with the next year, to increase the amount of wants perhaps to 200, perhaps to 500 or even 1,000, while the ulterior increase will have no assignable limit, so long as the amount of charity is capable of augmenting in proportion.


—Still another cause accelerates the increase of indigence. Whatever may be the immediate source of the assistance distributed by charity, it is always levied upon the revenues of the country. Whether the charity takes the form of contributions, or some other form, the assistance given is subtracted from the savings which have been made, and the power of saving and capitalizing has been diminished by so much. Consequently, in proportion as the amount of assistance given increases, it will absorb a greater part of the funds which were destined to replace or to increase the capital consumed in production, of the funds which represent the present and future demand for labor, the support of workmen and of those who will succeed them. Of course we must suppose that charity will first be practiced at the expense of unproductive consumption, and as charity can only substitute for such consumption other unproductive consumption; the condition, on the whole, of non-assisted workmen will not be changed. Whether a portion of our revenue be devoted to the satisfaction of wants of luxury, or used to procure the bare necessaries of life for the poor, it must in any case be exchanged for the products of labor. But it is impossible that charity, gradually extending its work, should not end by reaching the funds destined for reproductive consumption; and then it can not concern itself for the assisted poor, except at the expense of the unassisted; the work or help it provides for some is taken from others; it then reduces to indigence a number equal to that which it relieves.


—Such are the laws of political economy governing the subject under discussion. It is easy to deduce from them the solution of the questions connected with this subject. The general effect of charity is to increase the improvidence of the poor, and consequently to produce indigence, misery and pauperism; to insure the increase in the future of present evils; in fine, to render more and more pernicious, and more incurable the disease of which it partially attenuates the ravages.


—How does charity produce this effect? By lessening the individual responsibility of the poor and the sanction resulting therefrom; by engendering in them an expectation contrary to this sanction, contrary to the natural concatenation of causes and effects, that is to say, to the natural course of things.


—Thus, the more general and well founded this expectation, the greater will these effects be, since the intensity of a cause is the exact measure of the action of that cause. This principle furnishes us with a criterion for judging, from the strictly economical point of view, the different modes of the practice of charity.


—The expectation in question rests either upon declarations or upon presumptions; it is better founded the more explicit the declarations and the stronger the presumptions; and it is all the more general the more such declarations and presumptions are notorious and of a wide application.


—No declaration could be more explicit, more notorious, nor wider in its application, than the law imposing upon the state or upon the provinces the formal obligation to assist all the indigent within their limits, thus creating for the poor a positive right to assistance. Legal charity is, therefore, the most vicious of all the modes of assistance, for it is the system which produces the best founded and most general expectation of assistance, especially when it is combined, as in England, with the poor tax, when to the absolute right of the indigent corresponds an unlimited burden to the nation.


—At the other extreme we find private charity, less mischievous in so far as it is practiced individually and with the discretion and prudence characteristic of true charity. The expectation of assistance it gives rise to rests merely on a presumption, and this presumption is, of all its kind, the weakest, the least notorious, the least susceptible of extended application: the least strong, since, from the fact that an individual has done an act of charity today, it can not be inferred that he will always perform charitable acts, nor even that he will do so again, nor that any other person will feel disposed to imitate his example; the least notorious, because private individual charity avoids publicity from interest if not from duty; lastly, the least susceptible of an extended application, because this charity reaches only chosen poor and those belonging to one limited locality.


—Between these two opposite extremes may be placed and grouped all the other forms of charity, forms more or less pernicious, according as they approach nearer to legal charity or private charity; they all participate to some extent in the inconveniences which attach to the0 very principle of charity. We shall limit ourselves to a brief enumeration of the most characteristic of these forms.


—Almsgiving begets mendicity, and mendicity in turn begets almsgiving. Almsgiving and mendicity, once they have become a habit, tend to become more and more frequent; the two habits support one another. To prevent almsgiving is an impossibility; to repress mendicity is a little less difficult; but this repression is always costly and it can never become efficacious except with the aid of institutions which approach very near to legal charity. Hospitals and houses of refuge must be established for the sick or infirm poor; work and shelter must be provided for the ablebodied poor, were it only in a house of correction or a prison. Hospitals are commonly considered altogether inoffensive, because they serve as a refuge for a kind of indigence the causes of which do not naturally tend to increase. This is an error. It must not be forgotten that these causes are among the contingencies which stimulate the poor to foresight, and that from the moment these stimulants are neutralized, the number of poor families which fall into indigence through any of the causes connected with insufficiency of labor or insufficiency of wages necessarily increases. The poor man will not become sick voluntarily so as to avail himself of the assistance a hospital affords, but he will make fewer efforts to avert from himself and from the other members of his family these ever imminent calamities, and, as a general rule, he will occupy himself less with providing for contingent future wants.


—With respect to the institutions destined to afford labor and shelter to the ablebodied poor, the expectations they engender are all the greater the more completely they provide for the wants of the indigent and the easier the terms are which they impose. These institutions can not, therefore, neutralize this expectation unless they assume a penal character; and the less they have of the penal character the less will the expectation of assistance be neutralized, and consequently the less will the scourge of indigence and misery meet with opposition.


—Official charity has always the inconvenience of causing a very strong presumption of assistance, thus creating a general expectation of relief. We may say the same of collective private charity practiced by permanent organized associations.


—The principles we have exposed may be easily applied to all other forms of public or private charity.


—IV. It may happen—and some such instances are known to us—that all the indigent of a locality may be assisted, and amply too, and yet their number not increase from year to year. We once visited a commune in Switzerland in which there was neither mendicity nor misery. Upon asking whether indigence was wholly unknown in the canton we were shown a large house in which about a hundred persons of both sexes, young and old, were supported in a condition of comfort that would excite the envy of the poor of other countries. Here is the explanation of the phenomenon.


—In the country just mentioned each commune being obliged to assist its own poor, mendicants not belonging to it are pitilessly ordered to leave it. The commune in question is one of the richest in the land, and is besides an agricultural one in which property, is very widely distributed, so that the middle class comprised all the inhabitants with the exception of some hundred poor, who, thanks to the influence of legal authority, had all fallen into indigence. The plague had stopped there for the last two generations, and although the assisted families had somewhat increased, the fund destined for their maintenance had amply sufficed till then to keep them. We must not be surprised at the fact that the middle class escaped the demoralizing influence of legal charity; this is a general fact, although it would naturally occur on a larger scale among the inhabitants under the circumstances we have described. In all nations advanced in civilization the help of charity implies for the man of the middle class who is its recipient an absolute forfeiture of social position to which death is not seldom preferred. Hence the horror inspired by indigence is not lessened and the stimulant resulting therefrom is not neutralized, in the case of this class, by any charitable institution nor by any hope of assistance however well founded and general we may suppose it. This fact explains how the principle of legal charity could be adopted and practiced in England during more than two centuries without completely ruining the country; it is this fact, too, which establishes that there is an essential difference between the principle of legal charity and that of the right to labor. The most rugged nation would not long resist the application of this last principle; and yet the law which would apply it might be framed in about the same terms as the statute of queen Elizabeth.


—Legal charity none the less contains a germ whose development sooner or later brings grave dangers to the social body. Under the influence of this principle the number of the indigents constantly increased in England and the poor tax had reached the exorbitant sum of $33,957,995 for a population of 13,894,574 inhabitants, which is more than $2.50 a head. There were districts in which misery had reached such proportions that farmers unable to bear the burden of the poor tax gave up their leases; the land did not pay the cost of cultivation, and the ablebodied population was left without work or wages. The obligation imposed upon parishes to find work for the ablebodied poor and to take care of the infirm, of abandoned children, in fact, of all those who were not in a position to gain a livelihood by their labor, had the effect of a bounty paid to improvidence, and acted as an encouragement to idleness, to early marriage, to the increase of poor families. Such is the substance of the investigation made by order of the British parliament in 1833.


—The system of legal charity does not exist in England only. It is found in Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Holland, Belgium, in all the states of Germany, in a great part of Scotland, Switzerland, and the United States. France had kept free from this economic error until 1789; she again abandoned the system in 1814 only to fall into the error again in 1848, the constitution of that year (preamble § vii. and article xiii.) making it a duty of the state to furnish labor to ablebodied indigent people and to assist the indigent sick.


—Moreover, the countries where legal charity was not adopted, none the less practiced public charity, and in some of them, notably in France, this was done on a very large scale. What has been the result of public charity in all these cases? Has it put an end to indigence, done away with misery, or remedied pauperism? It has not. On the contrary, everywhere the increase in the number of the indigent has been more rapid, in proportion as charity, private or public, showed itself more generous and active.


—Public charity moves in a vicious circle from which it can not possibly escape; it creates an expectation of assistance which it can not satisfy; finally, it tries to render this expectation illusory so as to diminish the burden with which it has rashly loaded itself.


—Can it be said that these results are owing to the mode of administration of public charity rather than to the system? These modes of administration have all been tried and they have all had the same result. We refer to the innumerable facts which have been collected in many modern works, especially to a mémoire crowned in 1835 by the French academy of moral and political sciences, and which has been since published by its author, M. Naville of Geneva, under the title of De la charité légale. M. Naville proves by facts and figures which can not be disputed, that all the modes of practicing public charity, and especially workhouses and agricultural colonies from which such happy results had been anticipated, have been inadequate to remove the plagues of misery and of pauperism. After having partially attained their object, after having been prosperous for some years, the best organized establishments break down, because not able to meet the very demands to which they give rise. Hospitals, poorhouses, workhouses and generally all charitable institutions intended for a special class of indigents only, or which have not been established to help the poor indiscriminately, may exist and in fact do exist, much longer; we know of some centuries old; but their duration is owing to the fact that the assistance they afforded was limited and consequently incomplete and insufficient. With them, and even side by side with them, are found deep-rooted misery and indigence, a misery and an indigence more widespread probably than they would have been had these charitable institutions not been established. Besides, if by availing themselves of public charity, the poor do not altogether forfeit all right to social consideration, their feeling of honor is lost, because public charity has a humiliating effect. Now what is the difference between refusing relief altogether and giving it in a manner that renders it unacceptable?


—Thus the facts which at first sight seem to contradict our theory are explained by it and confirm it. Not a single case has come under our observation which does not corroborate our statements. From the moment that public charity becomes regular and notorious it becomes injurious, not only to society as a whole but to the poor in particular; injurious to those it assists and to those it does not assist; injurious both morally and physically; injurious even in proportion to the liberality of its intentions and to the means it employs. If public charity were not condemned by political economy, it should be condemned by philanthropy.


—V. The ideas we have here developed are the same as those of the majority of English and Scotch economists of any reputation who have either written general treatises on political economy or who have devoted special attention to the subject under discussion. Adam Smith, Ricardo, Malthus, Chalmers, MacFarland, Townsend, and several other authors not so well known, have demonstrated (or have expressly laid it down as already demonstrated) that the tendency of state charity is to increase indigence, misery and pauperism because of its influence on the moral character of the poor.


—On the continent of Europe the subject has never been looked at from a proper standpoint. It has been made a question of morals or of politics, we might almost say of theology; the duty of society to the poor has been the sole thought of writers, as if before discovering what society should do it were not necessary to see what it can do!


—German and Italian economists do not concern themselves with legal charity except to point out the best means to promote the practice of such charity by the state, as an end; they do not even think of denying the propriety and absolute legitimateness of public charity; whereas it is precisely in its end that charity sins, and because of its end that it must be condemned.


—Have French economists better understood and better treated the question? J. B. Say, in his Cours complet, scarcely devotes ten pages to it. And this lucid writer does not see in the result of English legislation on the subject of the poor, anything but a local experience, containing no fruitful principle and no general lesson. According to Say everything depends upon the nature of the means employed, and upon the political character of the institutions of the country in which the relief is afforded.


—Duchâtel, in his work on charity, gives a very clear exposition of the causes of misery and of the fatal tendencies of legal charity; but after thus entering upon the right path, he stops midway and admits that governments can do charity without danger, in the case of indigence resulting from causes which man can neither prevent nor foresee; he even makes it the duty of the state to assist the poor whenever prudence or charity do not suffice to prevent or to relieve indigence.*42 "These words," Naville justly remarks, "might be written upon the banner of legal charity; the most declared partisans of the system hold no other language."


—What shall we say of writers not economists, such as de Morogues, de Villeneuve, de Gérando, Thiers, Dufau, etc., who have especially busied themselves with the question? From the moment that it is tacitly or expressly admitted as a dogma that the state must do charity, and that it can do so without producing more evil than good, we do not deny that there are a thousand means of relieving actual misery, at least partially.


—Baron de Gérando, in his work so replete with science and warm philanthropy, while he admits that public charity is a duty, does not admit the correlative right of the indigent; and he is of opinion that if public charity has sometimes a dangerous tendency, it can have such a tendency only in a country in which such a right is publicly proclaimed or expressly recognized. This is evidently an error; the danger of public charity consists in that it creates an expectation of relief. Undoubtedly the expectation is greater where the right to public charity is recognized, but it exists independently of such right and of any explicit declaration; to create this expectation it suffices for the state to perform acts of charity at its own cost. Even private charity, as we have shown, is not free from this inconvenience when it is practiced collectively or in the form of alms.


—M. Thiers sums up his opinion in the following terms: "The state, like the individual, should be charitable; but like the individual, it must be so of its own free will, and, moreover, it must be so in a prudent manner; and it is not to assure it the means of giving less or giving little that we assign these limits to it; it is with the object of saving the nation's wealth which belongs to the poor more than to the rich; it is to keep up the duty of labor for every one, and to prevent the vices of idleness, which, with the multitude, easily become dangerous and even atrocious. But the state, free and prudent in its liberty, must not be parsimonious in doing charity. Just as the state tends toward everything great and beautiful by its taste for the great and beautiful; just as it erects magnificent monuments to excite the admiration of men, as it sacrifices the blood of its soldiers to preserve to the nation its reputation for heroism; so will the state practice charity in order to win universal esteem. We shall not allow our cities to be the haunts of misery or vice; the state should try to diminish the amount of suffering by the love of the good which should equal its love for the great and the beautiful. The state should be as proud to spare strangers the sight of beggars dying of hunger, as to exhibit to them the monuments of art and of glory, the column of Vendôme or the Hotel des Invalides. The state, in a word, will be a good man when led by the same impulses as a good man, namely by the love for the good and the beautiful; and being good it will be just and wise. Such are the only true principles in the matter of charity."


—We have transcribed in full this strange passage because it very well explains why M. Thiers always professed to ignore and to deny political economy. M. Theirs, in order to be consistent with himself must deny a great many things besides. Still arithmetic because denied and ignored by spendthrifts is none the less positive. The state must be prudent and largely charitable at the same time. But if prudence excludes public charity altogether, what then? The state must be charitable for the love of the good. But what if charity necessarily ends in producing more evil than good?


—VI. Political economy is not the only science which must find application in the conduct of states; it furnishes some directing principles but not absolute principles. It therefore does not come within the province of economists to draw up a plan of legislation on the poor. What it teaches in this respect may be modified by many considerations drawn either from other moral and political sciences or from local and temporary circumstances. All that can be asked of us is to give a solution of the problem of misery in accordance with political economy, to point out what are the means economically proper to relieve indigence. This is what we purpose to do in a few words.


—The state should neither practice public charity nor interfere with the exercise of private charity. The want in question is one of those which society can not satisfy except by itself, by the free development of its productive powers and of its moral faculties. Left to its own inspiration, society would not be slow to perceive that if charity is to be efficacious; if it is not to become an encouragement to idleness, vice and fraud; if it is not to provoke an imprudent increase of the poor class, it must adopt certain principles and impose upon itself certain duties, which may be set forth thus: 1. Charity must combat the causes of indigence, namely prevent them, at the same time that it endeavors to relieve indigence itself. It should strive to destroy, not to relieve it. It must be at once preventive and subventive, but it should above all and always be preventive, since subvention has limits while prevention has none. 2. Purely preventive charity may be practiced collectively by establishing, for instance, savings banks, mutual aid societies, and other similar institutions. 3. Charity both preventive and subventive should be practiced individually at least in so far as the application of relief itself is concerned; its action should have as its permanent and principal aim the improvement of the moral character of the indigent, and, as far as possible, consider their position rather than the satisfaction of their material wants and the saving them from present privation. 4. Charity can not be efficacious and its works will not really abolish misery and prevent indigence unless it is ever and before all, charitable, that is to say, the result of benevolence and love and not of ostentation or of contemptuous pity; unless it is affectionate in its forms, patient and active as well as firm and vigilant; unless, in fine, it employs in the attainment of its object that personal action, that natural patronage practiced by every man, when he will, on those who stand in need of him. Such would be charity according to political economy.


Notes for this chapter

He deserves ill of the mendicant who gives him to eat and to drink; because what is given is thus lost, and it perpetuates his misery.
Considérations d'économie politique sur la bienfaisance, ou de la charité, par F. Duchâtel, ministre du commerce.


End of Notes

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