Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-59) was a Frenchmen who spent time in the U. S. in the mid 1800s. His observations on the U. S. Culture and democracy were published in a classic two-volume work – Democracy in America. He was, among other things, impressed with Americans willingness to volunteer to help their neighbors and to give to charitable causes. On the other hand, he wrote, the people of Europe have left to government the undertaking of almost all charitable work. “The state almost exclusively undertakes to supply bread to the hungary, assistance and shelter to the sick, work to the idle, and to act as the sole reliever of all kinds of misery.” Even though in the last 100 years the U. S. Federal Government has taken on more of this kind of work, the American culture still has a significant amount of charitable work done in the private sector. I’m told the state of Oklahoma has 19,000 non-profit organizations. To be a tax-exempt organization requires certification by both the state and Federal Government that it exists “for the public good”. These organizations are required to meet certain legal requirements designed to ensure that their funds are directed toward the approved mission including having an independent board of directors – most of whom are unpaid volunteers. Tocqueville’s observation are still quoted frequently in this country. In the last month, the Executive Director of Leadership Tulsa – an organization which encourages and trains local business people to serve voluntarily on the boards of charitable organizations – opened her presentation with a quote from Tocqueville. And our local paper carried a story of the Tocqueville Society – an organization sponsored by our local United Way – consisting of people who have given significantly of their time and money to charitable organizations.
Even so, much of our political debate today has to do with how much of this charitable work should be taken on by the government. What gets lost in this debate too frequently is the fact that both the people who want larger government involvement and those who favor a more limited government, believe that it is important to help our neighbors. The question is not should this work be done, but rather should it be done in the private sector or by the government. Part of the difficulty with doing it in the private sector is that it is not always obvious that it is being done, and being done well. In that regard it suffers from the same problem that a free market economy has in that no-one can see the “invisible hand”.
My experience from fairly extensive work with the non-profit sector over the last 20 years is that there are three primary advantages of private charitable organizations:
- The people in the charitable organizations are passionate about what they are doing. They really care about the people they are serving. Even though they may have a paid staff, the staff report to a volunteer board and utilizes volunteers who are giving their time freely because they care. To many of the government employees it seems to be “just a job”.
- Private charitable organizations are more efficient. Most have to work to raise the volunteer time and monetary resources needed to do the work and the fear of failure is a real motivator. With the assurance of tax dollars, government employees don’t generally feel this fear. Peter Drucker, probably the best known management guru in the last 100 years had a serious interest in the management of charitable organizations. He expressed the opinion that there may be times the government needs to support charitable activities. He said that although the government might provide some funding, we should never let them “do” anything. They are too inefficient.
- Private charitable organizations are not only more efficient, they are also more effective. I was on the board for several years of a charitable organization that was serving people with some of the same needs that as the state was with its own organization. We were spending about half the money and by all measures, getting better results.
Stephen Covey, the author of the best-selling book Seven Habits of Highly Successful People, liked to quote the adage, “Give a person a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a person to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” The government is good at giving people fish. And although sometimes they attempt to teach, they don’t do nearly so well with that. But even the adage does not speak to everything that many people need. For example people stuck in the “cycle of poverty” need hope. I may know how to fish, but if I don’t really belive that I will catch something, I’m not likely to spend the time I need to be successful. Fishing takes patience and perseverance. In the movie “The Undefeated” – a story about a high school football team in a poor section of Memphis, Tenn. – the volunteer coach was selling “hope”. The movie is true story about an unpaid, volunteer football coach who took the football team to the state playoffs after they had not won a game in several years. One of his players – not the star player – but a promising student – was given a chance for a college education by a local businessman who had become aware of the changes in behavior this kid had made. The coach told him of the scholarship offer and added ” when you work hard and do the right things – good things can happen in your life”. Real change, Covey said, happens from the inside-out. We have to believe that we have the ability to change our circumstances – we have to have hope. To paraphrase Ezra Taft Benson (former U S Secretary of Agriculture): The world works form the outside in. The world (government) would take the people out of the slums. Hope and faith take the slums out of people, and then they take themselves out of the slums. The government would mold men by changing their environment . Hope changes men, who then change their environment. The government is not good at giving people the hope and faith required for them to change themselves, rather it tends to facilitate dependency. Private charitable organizations are much better at helping people change from the inside-out.
I believe that the Federal Government can and perhaps needs to support some charitable causes. The safety net idea has a lot of appeal, but people need to understand that a “safety net” does not relieve them of the personal responsibility for their own well-being. The welfare state can be a slippery slope. Less quoted these days are some other Tocqueville observations. For example he said, “[A democracy] can only exist untill the voters discover that they can vote themselves largesse from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits from the public treasury with the result that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy, always followed by a dictatorship.” When it seemed a few months ago that Greece might hold a public vote on an austerity program that the EU was demanding, it was hard for the media to find any “expert” that thought the vote was a good idea. As one observer on CNBC said “People will always vote for free beer”. They did not have a vote and the leader who proposed the vote lost his job. Was that a sign that the end of a democracy is at hand?
Personally, I think if people really understand that trade-offs need to be made, they will back a change even though it may have personal impacts. Organizational change management wisdom that the first requirement is for people to understand that the status quo is not an option. Life is full of trade offs, but who will tell the voters that? Tocqueville also said, “The American Republic will endure until the day Congress discovers that it can bribe the public with the public’s money.” There are a few leaders in the world who will do the right thing regardless of whether they are re-elected. Gerhard Schroder, German Chancellor who took office in 1998, is given credit for making the hard decisions that resulted in Germany being the strongest economy in Europe today … but he got voted out of office for his efforts. We need more leaders like that. There is no free lunch. Although we can put off paying for it, the longer we wait to do that the more it will cost and the more painful it will be.
If the welfare state slides down the slippery slope, I’m not sure what will be at the bottom. It may not be socialism, but as Tocqueville indicated it could well be a loss of a democratic form of government. What we are hearing today is to have the “rich” pay more taxes because that is seen by some as a form of “give back”. While that may seem fair and would make us more equal, unfortunately it would not be enough statistically to solve out budget problems. But the most disturbing possible consequence of that is summarized in the following quote from Tocqueville:
“The foremost or indeed the sole condition required in order to succeed in centralizing the supreme power in a democratic community is to love equality, or to get men to believe you love it. Thus the science of despotism, which was once so complex, is simplified, and reduced, as it were, to a single principle”.
Many of us think that a meaningful “give back” measure is what we freely contribute to charitable not-for-profit organizations. Perhaps a realistic “give back” measure would be the sum of what we pay in taxes and what we contribute to organizations that exist for the public good. If so, that’s the number we should ask the media to publicize – not just the tax percentage that is paid. That perspective might bring a little more balance back into people’s thinking. We don’t really have to have the government “save us” from every hardship. We can do a lot ourselves if we are willing to take individual responsibility and believe that we can.