Gary Hofmeister: What is charity, really?

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Although I had studied varying political and economic systems for many years before beginning my avocation of volunteer teaching in the former Soviet Union, there was still a rash of revelations awaiting me, some of which had never even entered my mind until that time. One of most startling I learned about had vastly more repercussions than I would have expected.

My lifetime association with various charities and volunteer organizations has been fairly typical. In this marvelously generous country, it is almost assumed that anyone with a bare minimum of disposable income will help support his church and other worthy enterprises to assist the less fortunate. This isn’t new. Toqueville wrote of it in 1835 and was effusive in his praise of this seemingly unique American trait. It’s truly part of our history and tradition.

When I first learned that the Soviet Union had no such agencies at all, I was flabbergasted, especially because I already had seen so many elderly women beggars on every street corner. It took one of my new friends in Moscow to explain it to me: “Why would you need charitable organizations in a ‘Worker’s Paradise?’” Well, of course.

This mind-set and its logical outcome hit me particularly hard in Ukraine where I had so many friends. I started noticing a disturbing disconnect from their neighbors and friends. When it seemed obvious to me that someone could use some assistance, the reply was almost automatic with a shrugged off, “It’s not my problem.” A few questions tendered consistently throughout a period of time finally gave me the answer they had been taught to think for generations: The government was responsible, not individuals. Why should they even think of getting involved?

The logical question reverts back to our own situation at present with the government moving into virtually every area of our lives. And even worse than the normal incremental thinking of not being your brother’s keeper that comes with an all-powerful government, many of the proactive steps being taken to destroy or dismantle organizations already in place makes you wonder if this is the usual blindside of Washington activating the Law of Unintended Consequences or if it’s truly by design.

Refusing to give churches or religious institutions a dispensation from laws that essentially mandate violating their basic tenets regarding abortion or homosexuality is just one example. Trying to remove the “Conscience Clause” allowing doctors and nurses to refuse to be involved in abortions and other procedures contrary to their beliefs is a direct assault on religious freedom. Century-old organizations such as the Salvation Army, Catholic Charities and Catholic hospitals are just a few that have been waging high-profile defensive battles with the militant secularists within the government the past few years. Do they really want these vital services to go away or be taken over by the public with the taxpayers footing the bills? It appears so.

Ultimately, the question is whether it should be considered charity if it is forced rather than freely given. Maybe an even better question is: Who spends the money better, the government-run facilities or the private ones? The answer should be obvious. When it’s private, we know we must prove to the administrators that it is deserved and maybe even appreciated. When it’s public, we have a sense of entitlement that inevitably is followed by one word: more. That’s bad enough. But the really depressing phrase I hope I never hear from an American seeing a fellow citizen in trouble would be, “It’s not my problem.”

Hofmeister is the owner and operator of Hofmeister Personal Jewelers in downtown Steamboat, a company he founded in 1973. He is a director of the Conservative Leadership Council of Northwest Colorado and a former Republican nominee for Congress in the 10th District of Indiana. He made 18 trips to the former USSR to teach democratic-capitalism during the 1990s.

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