[In 1994, Republicans and Democrats in Congress passed the Welfare Reform Act, which punished the poor for their insolvency by slicing up the safety net; in 2006, in another show of bipartisanship, Congress revised the Bankruptcy Law, making it more difficult for middle class Americans to get out of the spiral of debt that leads to poverty; and now, the same cabal is about to reward the richest of the rich for their cupidity by handing them each his own golden parachute and get-out-of-jail card. Dumping the poor saved American taxpayers $18 billion. Bailing out Wall Street will cost them $700 billion. How can we explain this disposition to help the rich in distress but not the poor? Why is it a national emergency when the very rich are threatened with becoming merely rich but a day of jubilee when the poor were plunged into even more grinding poverty? An essay I wrote 20 years ago might help to shed some light on that question though it addressed another which is still topical. It was published in The New York Tribune, which was resurrected for a few years in the 1980s only to suffer the same fate as The New York Sun, which announced today that it would cease publication.]
By: Manuel A. Tellechea
The New York Tribune
Commentary Section, p. 9
October 21, 1988
A judge in New York upheld recently the right of beggars to beg, which decision he must have arrived at by the commendable expedient of taking the dictionary as his law book. His ruling, however, has proved very unpopular among the well-fed majority that believe it is better for a man to starve than to beg. The argument is again put forward which has for decades been used against casual charity: "Don't give a man a rope, but teach him how to hang himself," or something to that effect. This is not a conservative position and it certainly forms no part of the Judeo-Christian ethic, which exalts charity above all virtues. Its father is Herbert Spencer and it dates to the 19th century. Its common name is social Darwinism, or modern (as opposed to classical) liberalism.
Marxists also opposed casual charity because they thought that it would postpone that glorious day when the masses would rise against their oppressors. When the Marxists became the oppressors they continued to oppose it because they hoped that a starving people wouldn't have the strength to rise in the morning let alone rise in arms. In our time, however, there are no ideological positions on alms giving: revolutionaries no longer oppose it (having given up on the poor as the engine of revolution) and neither do capitalists (having no fear of them as such, either). Only the social Darwinists still publicly object to casual charity and their pseudo-science has been embraced by the general population. In the end, it is always the most savage and inhumane perspective that prevails in human relations.
Social Darwinists are always asking themselves if the poor are "deserving," but invariably the poor are always deserving unless one looks on their poverty as a well-deserved punishment. If we set out to divide the rich into the deserving rich and the undeserving rich, I should not think that we would find all the rich deserving. Yet no one would think to deprive the undeserving rich of the protection which society accords their wealth, but the social Darwinists would deny to the "undeserving" poor — that is, to as many of the poor as possible — all claims to society's protection (society here defined as society, not government). The benefits that society accords the rich are not dealt out according to need, but, rather, in proportion to the absence of need. With the rich we can never be too liberal:
The daughter of a rich acquaintance is marrying. Naturally, we will have to buy a gift. We must be reasonable, but reasonable not by our lights but theirs. In other words, we must be unreasonable. Our present — let us say a porcelain cabbage — is received with kindness and spotted some years hence being used as a doorstop. We will never be as extravagant again; nor need we worry about future baptisms or weddings. We have paid our homage to the rich. We have given from our relative needs to those who have no needs which we can satisfy. We have done no good, but who will say that we have done ill?
A porcelain cabbage is an innocuous thing, or so we may suppose. But, as G.K. Chesterton observed, "to give any present worth calling a present is to give power; to give power is to give liberty; to give liberty is to give potential sin." In a fit of pique a jealous wife may break that stony head of cabbage on the head of her stoned husband. Or dear papa may stub his gouty toe on a curious green doorstop and never cross that threshold again, causing dark days to descend thereupon. Surely such thoughts never enter our minds when we are spending money on the rich. Then we assume as a matter of course that what is superfluous will also prove innocuous. It is only when we are given alms to the poor that we are asked to consider the possible adverse consequences of casual charity.
Let us ask ourselves: Are we really more solicitous of the beggar's welfare than the rich man's? Surely not, since we never think to fulfill the expectations which the poor have of us. We do not give to the poor to commend ourselves to them but that we might command them. We never rise to charity, we stoop to charity. If the beggar in the gutter does not use our quarter to turn his life around, we think ourselves ill-used and say so. Yet no indignity that the millionaire's daughter may heap on our cabbage will ever move us to remonstrance. We have quite surrendered our cabbage and all claims to it. That portion of our estate we have transferred voluntarily and in perpetuity. But not the beggar's miserable quarter. Of him and of our quarter we are and will always be guardian and executor. So it is that cautious philanthropists are now distributing two-bit vouchers redeemable for food at specified locales — a scheme which hopes to make charity safe again for the poor. As compared to, say, school vouchers, these vouchers do not increase personal choice and hence liberty, but restrict if not altogether eliminate it. It is debatable which is the more demeaning: to regard the beggar as an adult responsible for his poverty, or as a child able to take responsibility for nothing, not even a quarter.
But although we do not trust him to be responsible for himself neither do we wish to be responsible for him. It is far easier to suppose that our quarter will ruin the beggar than the want of a quarter. But it is just as difficult to ruin oneself on a quarter as it is to save oneself with a quarter. At best our quarters may provide the beggar with a temporary reprise from his suffering. At worst, they will leave him unaffected in the gutter.
When we made our present to the rich man's daughter, we never asked ourselves if she needed it, for we knew for a fact she did not. But when we see someone whose need is patent, we stop to debate whether that need is real! Money is never said to harm the rich who do not need it. Money harms only the poor who desperately want for it. Yet how can that which is said to be harmless in very great quantities prove fatal in a very small dose? Ill may come of charity, but ill may come of anything; and of anything more likely than charity.
Social Darwinists believe that to give money to beggars rewards idleness and encourages alcoholism. It is alleged that the poor are poor because they will not work. If laziness always and invariably resulted in poverty, the widows of rich men would all be poor. Wealth is often something that just happens to you, and poverty is apt to happen to you far more commonly than wealth. The idle rich are idle because they are rich; they are not rich because they are idle. No more than the poor are poor because they are idle: the poor are idle because they are poor.
The antidote to casual charity is the apprehension that the beggar aspires only to be a drunkard and that by withholding our quarter we shall save him from becoming one. Temperance was never enforced for the rich even when it was the law, but we are still trying to force it down the throats of the poor. If the clubman can drink to intensify his pleasure, why shouldn't the grubman drink to mitigate his sorrows. The drunk in the gutter will never run down a pedestrian nor knock down a hydrant. He is no threat to limb or property. He is a nuisance, but not a menace. Social drinkers are the menace, not unsocial drinkers. And the people that social drinkers most often menace are unsocial drinkers: nothing so easy for a drunk in a car to flatten as a drunk staggering across a road.
Beggars are unsocial drinkers because we will not allow them to be social drinkers. If the bishop in his palace feels faint, we do not begrudge him a glass of brandy bought with the alms of the faithful. He has cares, we suppose. And weaknesses, we are sure. But if the beggar in the gutter is cold and hungry as beggars in gutters are wont to be, we are encouraged to deny him alms for fear that he will betake himself to the warmth of the public house (certainly no private house would receive him), and for the price of a glass of beer, banish his griefs for a while and allay his hunger with the stale offerings of the bar or the leavings of more fortunate men, whose presence at such establishments evokes no comment or censure.
Other articles from the Tellechea Newspaper Archives:
Alicia in Wonderland (1987)
Fidel's First Anal Emergency (1987)
Castro's Pet Author Lends his Nobel Credentials to Marxist Cuba (1988)
Nadia's Defection Signalled Ceausescu's End (1990)