“Are there no prisons?”

In the opening chapter of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge is solicited for a private donation during the Christmas season to “make some slight provision for the poor the destitute” since “many thousands are in want of common necessities.” In one of literature’s most memorable exchanges, Scrooge asks, “Are there no prisons? … And the Union workhouses are they still in operation?” When assured that prisons and workhouses still are in operation, Scrooge dismisses any personal responsibilities by claiming that “I help to support the establishments I mentioned.” In other words the existence of large institutions for collective provision, Scrooge believed, relieved him of personal responsibility for the poor.

Unfortunately, one of the consequences of well-intentioned government provision is to attenuate the personal responsibility we all have with regard to the material needs of others. The empirical evidence suggests that those who most persuaded of the efficacy government provision are those who, as a rule, feel less personal responsibility. Arthur Brooks, in Who Really Cares, has thoroughly examined the statistics on charitable giving and has found that Conservatives, particularly religious Conservatives, are far more likely to donate to charities and in higher amounts than Liberals, particularly secular Liberals. Moreover, Conservatives are more likely to volunteer their time and even donate blood at a substantially higher rate.

These statistics represent a generalization. There are very many liberals who are quite generous with their time and money and their efforts should not be ignored or disparaged. However, Brooks does not allow us to escape the conclusion that Conservatives are more generous. It is not because Liberals are inherently less empathetic or compassionate, it is because the political ideology of collective provision saps the moral necessity for personal action.

This fact mirrors itself in national differences with respect to European countries who have bought into the socialized world view. The United States provides a large amount of direct foreign aid, but other industrialized countries provide more relative to their Gross National Product (GDP). However, much of the assistance to foreign countries from the US come through private donations to private non-governmental organizations. Indeed, private assistance dwarfs US official development assistance by a factor of three and few doubt that such private aid is more efficiently dispensed. When all these sources are taken together, the US ranks among the highest in generosity relative to its wealth.

When the ghost of Jacob Marley visits Scrooge, Scrooge wonders why Marley is so burdened in death since he was such a good businessman. Marley’s Ghost shouts, “ Business! Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings ofmy trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean ofmy business! [emphasis added]” This observation is consistent with the Conservative intuition. A Liberal version of Marley’s lament would have substituted “our” for “my” and therein lies the difference between Conservatives and Liberals.

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