The recent call to cap the number of charity shops on Britain's high streets sheds light on some of the hidden costs and unintended consequences of charitable giving and the fact that too much charity can often do more harm than good. While charities often escape serious criticism today, this has not always been the case.
For example, in his 1875 publication, Thrift, Samuel Smiles warned that ‘charity, like man, is sometimes blind, and frequently misguided’, and that if money is not wisely distributed, then it will ‘sap the foundations of self-respect, and break down the very outworks of virtue itself.’ To reinforce his message, Smiles refers to the example of London in the mid-nineteenth century where annual donations of £3 million had resulted in one in three of the population being relieved by charitable institutions. This raised a number of intriguing questions:
‘May not the money spent in charity create the distress it relieves - besides creating other distress which it fails to relieve? Uneducated and idle people will not exert themselves for a living, when they have the hope of obtaining the living without exertion. Who will be frugal and provident, when charity offers all that frugality and providence can confer? Does not the gift of the advantages, comforts, and rewards of industry, without the necessity of labouring for them, tend to sap the very foundations of energy and self-reliance? Is not the circumstance that poverty is the only requisite qualification on the part of the applicant for charity, calculated to tempt the people to self-indulgence, to dissipation, and to those courses of life which keep them poor?’
Smiles also criticises the practice of wealthy individuals who leave large sums of money to set up charities, suggesting that while they may wish to do good, they often do much moral injury as their charities are anything but charitable. Again, Smiles is concerned with how these charities tend to destroy the self-respect of the poor:
´We can get this charity for nothing. We can get medical assistance for nothing. We can get our children educated for nothing. Why should we work? Why should we save? Such is the idea which charity, so-called, inculcates. The "Charitable Institution" becomes a genteel poor-house; and the lesson is extensively taught that we can do better by begging than by working.’
Smiles regarded the United States as the society most in harmony with his ideas and he is said to have first come across the phrase ‘self-help’ in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1841 lecture, Man the Reformer, in which he asked his audience to ‘learn the lesson of self-help’. Emerson was also heavily critical of the growth of philanthropy in the US during the first half of the nineteenth century:
‘I am ashamed to think how easily we capitulate to badges and names, to large societies and dead institutions. Every decent and well-spoken individual affects and sways me more than is right. I ought to go upright and vital, and speak the rude truth in all ways. If malice and vanity wear the coat of philanthropy, shall that pass?
I tell thee, thou foolish philanthropist, that I grudge the dollar, the dime, the cent, I give to such men as do not belong to me and to whom I do not belong. There is a class of persons to whom by all spiritual affinity I am bought and sold; for them I will go to prison, if need be; but your miscellaneous popular charities; the education at college of fools; the building of meeting-houses to the vain end to which many now stand; alms to sots; and the thousandfold Relief Societies; — though I confess with shame I sometimes succumb and give the dollar, it is a wicked dollar which by and by I shall have the manhood to withhold.
Men who will not struggle and exert themselves, are those who are helped first. The worst sort of persons are made comfortable: whilst the hard-working, self-supporting man, who disdains to throw himself upon charity, is compelled to pay rates for the maintenance of the idle. Charity stretches forth its hand to the rottenest parts of society; it rarely seeks out, or helps, the struggling and the honest.’
Like Smiles, Emerson was also critical of those who were quick to become dependent upon others, whilst neglecting the importance and value of the self-helping man:
‘Welcome evermore to gods and men is the self-helping man. For him all doors are flung wide: him all tongues greet, all honors crown, all eyes follow with desire. Our love goes out to him and embraces him, because he did not need it. We solicitously and apologetically caress and celebrate him, because he held on his way and scorned our disapprobation.’
These comments from the past highlight two important points. First, instead of assuming that charitable activities will always benefit society simply because they are driven by good intentions, there needs to be much more critical analysis of the hidden costs and unintended consequences associated with such activities. Second, out of the car crash that was socialism, the self-helping man only just survived and could be seen limping from the scene with a number of injuries. I wonder who, if anyone, is now prepared to champion his cause?