How generous are Americans? Inconceivably so.
An official collecting private donations for victims of the Asian tsunami has
described American largess as a "tidal wave of generosity."
How generous are Americans compared to everyone else? Canada's Fraser
Institute measured the "generosity gap" that separates Americans
and Canadians, in both "the extent and the depth of charitable giving."
It found that "the average donation in the U.S. is three-and-a-half times
more than in Canada." As a percentage of their aggregate income, Americans
give more to charity than citizens of any other country.
Foreign governments have been showcasing the "charitable" nature
of their wealth transfers to the tsunami-stricken regions. Yet as hard as they
try, they don't come close to private American charitable donations in any given
year. Add up the amounts governments have appropriated from their citizens to
help victims of the tidal wave. The total (including pledges from the World
Bank and the Asian Bank of Development) comes to $3.7 billion. This is a mere
1.5 percent of what Americans gave privately in 2003.
According to the American Association of Fundraising
Counsel (AAFRC), "American individuals, estates, foundations, and corporations"
gave $241 billion to charity in 2003 – privately and voluntarily, a
sum that excludes the cost of volunteer work.
Of course, most of the donated $241 billion is not private foreign aid. However,
as Bruce Bartlett of the National Center for Policy Analysis
points out, private foreign aid greatly exceeds U.S. government aid. And
the former, unlike the latter, can be channeled to recipients the donor – not
government – favors.
The late Sir Peter Bauer, author of Dissent on Development and the
foremost authority on foreign aid, was acutely aware of the importance to civil
society of voluntary giving. Foreign aid he saw as "outside the
area of volition and choice." Concerning the "morality" of "taxpayer's
money compulsorily collected," he said:
"[C]ontributors not only have no choice but quite generally do not
even know they are contributing. It is sometimes urged that in a democracy taxpayers
do have a choice, which restores the moral element to foreign aid. This objection
is superficial. The taxpayer has to contribute to foreign aid whether he likes
it or not and whether he has voted in its favor or against it."
If the extent, the depth, and the consistency of America's voluntary
giving negates the need for political pelf, the president and his media embeds
are not letting on. Instead, Bush has taken to touting USAID,
the United States Agency for International Development.
Heir to the Marshall Plan, USAID is an arm of the American government and
an executor of its policies, including the expansion of "the
global community of democracies" as "a key objective of U.S. foreign
policy." USAID maintains a presence in nearly a hundred countries,
the newly "liberated" Iraq and Afghanistan included. Bush claims
the agency is helping "democracy take root." And with typical
fatuity, he adds that USAID is "instrumental to making the world a better
place and … to protecting the American people."
Bush's claim that "the men and women of USAID have been at the center
of the response [to the tsunami]" is highly unlikely. That honor goes to
the non-profit organizations and their private donors. Aid is their art – and
their vocation. As a spokesman for an NGO reminded the president, "We have
been there for 30 or 40 years." Most major charities, the Salvation
Army for example, have staff stationed in – and serving – most of the areas
affected by the disaster, most of the world, in fact.
charities such as Oxfam and the International
Red Cross know the lay of the land and have used that knowledge to build
the infrastructure needed to funnel funds and food to the needy. This they achieve
with minimum overheads and personnel. And, unlike the American military, they
Indeed, private non-profits are many times more efficient than lumbering bureaucracies
like USAID and the foreign equivalents it "interfaces" with. With
pensions and perks in perpetuity, the mandarins manning these departments sell
"love and compassion" at a premium.
Private non-profits are not only exceedingly more efficient but infinitely
more ethical. Oxfam's trustees, for example, take "ultimate responsibility
in law for the charity, its assets and activities." You might hear
a great deal about government accountability, but when last did you see
it in action? Condoleezza's contortions at the 9/11
commission's hearings? The time she claimed that a memo warning of planes
doubling up as missiles was nothing but "historical," inactionable
Some private charities, for example Doctors Without Borders USA, a branch
of Medecins Sans Frontieres, have lately received more funds than they
can use. They duly told
their supporters they had raised enough to meet immediate tsunami-related
needs. Imagine that. Howard Stern will discover modesty before a government
official discovers such fiscal restraint and veracity.
Charities such as Oxfam aim to empower poor people globally; foreign aid,
being a government-to-government transfer, invariably empowers and consolidates
bureaucratic fiefdoms. Wherever USAID becomes established, it feeds the parasitic
political class in the recipient countries at the expense of the productive
private sector. As these governments fatten, real GDP
growth is stunted. And where USAID leads, Halliburton and other corporate
leeches follow – USAID provides these corrupt camp followers with direct infusions
of taxpayers' funds.
By Jan. 5, private American donors had collected for Asia almost as much as
the Bush government had unconstitutionally "pledged" on their behalf.
And even as Bush's appropriation reached $350 million, private donations continued
to keep pace – and more.
America's generosity in response to the Asian disaster makes USAID and other
compassionate pickpockets as unnecessary as they are unethical.