I have another confession to make. I hate United Way. I also hate other similar charities that try to guilt me into giving them money, but United Way has a special place on my list of hated organizations. Let me explain.
See the T-shirt on the right? I shot that picture a year or so ago when I saw the guy wearing it eating at a fast food joint where I was. I took it because of the slogan: “I gave my fair share.” It made me ill.
I know slogans such as this one are supposed to guilt us into giving more money to charities, but seeing them just makes me not want to give the organization a penny. The idea that they’ve determined my “fair” donation is offensive and paternalistic to me.
When I used to work for “civic-minded companies,” we were invariably forced to sit through a pitch for payroll giving to United Way. The boss would always talk about how he’s proud that his company has had “100 percent participation” for ages. They even had some sort of gimmick by which the real Scrooges could give a token dollar so the company could still claim that everyone was participating. But they weren’t counting on me.
At two different companies, I was called to my boss’ office after refusing to participate. I was told that I was going to prevent the company from reaching its goal. I explained that I preferred to give money to my church instead of handing over money to some organization to split as it sees fit. I was intimidated, but I wouldn’t even give a dime. To me, it was a principle. I wasn’t going to be bullied into giving to something I didn’t choose to participate in.
And that’s the biggest reason I hate the “united” approach to charity. It’s the way bullies approach “giving.” It’s not really about giving. It’s about an implied threat and a sense of obligation.
I’ve been thinking about this ever since I saw a New York Times piece last week blasting billionaire Steve Jobs for not being on record as giving away chunks of his money or agreeing to a promise to give away half of his fortune. Honestly, I don’t care whether Jobs gives away every penny of his money or if he invests it in wheat futures. The point is that it’s his money, not mine. It’s none of my business — or anybody else’s — what he does with it.
Jobs is known as a political liberal, so I wouldn’t be surprised if he were actually giving away some money already that we don’t know about. If he’s doing that, it’s fine with me. If he’s being “greedy” and keeping it to use some other way — pass to children or make some big splash when he dies — that’s fine with me, too. I just don’t care. Other billionaires — such as Bill Gates and Warren Buffet — make a big deal out of the good they’re allegedly doing with their money now. They might be doing some good (although I suspect they’re also distorting markets in some cases with their giving to manipulate situations), but I’m uncomfortable with the idea that people are praiseworthy just for giving things away.
This idea has guided public policy for decades now. It was the basis for U.S. President Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty.” The progress that’s been made in bringing living standards higher for people in poverty has come from growth of the market and people’s individual choices, not from government having handed out trillions of dollars in other people’s money over the decades. If you want my praise, create something of value. Create a company that can create wealth for generations. Invest your money in new things that will push the human race forward. You and others will make a profit from doing that, because you’ll be creating real value that can potentially last for hundreds of years.
I’m bothered by the idea that creating profitable companies is a greedy thing to do, but distributing your money to other people without merit is a praiseworthy thing. It’s not that I mind giving money. I like giving money and take great joy in it. But a society that believes the best thing to do with accumulated capital is to subsidize the lives of unsuccessful people is one that’s going downhill.
Successful nations that remain successful understand that creating wealth is the way to make everyone wealthier. Simply handing out piles of cash — whether to individuals or to new programs — doesn’t work. If it did, we would have won the “War on Poverty” long ago.