The flames of the Southern California fires have long been extinguished, but for those who lost property, pets and even family members in the fires, the emotional and financial healing is still in its early stages.
In what has become an automatic response for state and federal politicians facing natural disasters, outgoing Gov. Gray Davis and incoming Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger pleaded for assistance from the federal government while promising to tap resources from state coffers as well. According to a Dec. 5 Federal Emergency Management Agency press release, "More than $100 million in federal and state disaster assistance has been approved for individuals in the five fire-stricken Southern California counties (Los Angeles, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego and Ventura) since the federal disaster declaration in October."
The aid consists of $83 million in low-interest loans for homeowners, renters and businesses through the U.S. Small Business Administration; $13 million for medical, dental, funeral, transportation, moving and storage expenses and for the replacement of personal property; $5.1 million for temporary housing and necessary home repairs; and $605,000 in supplemental grants through the California Department of Social Services.
Regardless of government action, the outpouring of private support, both within and outside the communities affected by the fires, has been heartening. Just as was the case for other disasters — such as the Oklahoma City bombing, the Sept. 11 attacks and numerous hurricanes, tornadoes and earthquakes — millions and millions of dollars have been raised and massses of food, clothing and other supplies have been donated by individuals, nonprofit organizations, small businesses and large corporations.
Elementary school children have even held bake sales to raise money for fire victims. This is how it should be: individuals coming together of their own free will to help those in need, free of government strings and free to donate their time and money to the causes and organizations that they feel will do the most good and have the greatest effect.
Unfortunately, politicians no longer take the time to consider that their actions, though well-intentioned, are ill-advised at best, and unconstitutional at worst. They fail to recognize that charity cannot be coerced; it must be given freely.
In order to demonstrate their compassion for disaster victims (or welfare recipients, the elderly and any number of interest groups), politicians must necessarily take money from some in the form of taxes in order to relieve the suffering of others. But is it benevolent to take from one man without his consent and give to another? Does this not necessarily create new hardship for the many others forced to contribute to the government bureaucracy?
The Founding Fathers attempted to establish a government with limited and narrowly defined powers to minimize such an imposition of the state on the individual. Sadly, constitutional limitations have been ignored time and time again over the years, and government programs have been put into place under many guises. As columnist Joseph Sobran cautions, however, "Anything called a 'program' is unconstitutional."
In addition to their refusal to consider the constitutionality of their proposals, politicians fail to consider that their actions often have unintended, and deleterious, consequences. When public assistance is offered regularly or repeatedly, for example, it becomes not a unique offering of "charity," but an expected prerogative. We must only look to the welfare system to see that the public assistance intended to raise an entire class of people from poverty has instead led to the establishment (and even encouragement!) of a culture of entitlement, sloth and dependency.
Politicians did not always have such blatant disregard for the Constitution, however, and were even willing to accede to the wisdom of the limited nature of the government's powers in cases where national disasters and other tragedies had caused personal suffering. In 1887, President Grover Cleveland, a Democrat, refused to approve a measure to provide $10,000 in relief aid to drought-stricken Texas farmers. Cleveland defended his veto as follows:
"I can find no warrant for such an appropriation in the Constitution, and I do not believe that the power and duty of the General Government ought to be extended to the relief of individual suffering that is in no manner properly related to the public service or benefit. A prevalent tendency to disregard the limited mission of this power and duty should, I think, be steadfastly resisted, to the end the lesson should be constantly enforced that though the people support the Government the Government should not support the people."
Even more important than Cleveland's observation that Americans tend to be a very charitable group by nature was his insight to the corrupting influence of government handouts. As Garet Garrett noted, Cleveland's veto was "(O)ne way of saying a hard truth that was implicit in the American way of thinking, namely, that when people support the government, they control government, but when the government supports the people, it will control them."
To the extent that government and its public institutions are desirable at all, they should be focused on the protection of the nation's citizens from violence, fraud and the like. Charity is best left to the private domain. If government is to once again become limited and encourage individual liberty and free enterprise -- as it was originally designed to be — citizens must elect public leaders with the wisdom and political courage to refrain from intruding on the private sphere, even in instances of widespread personal tragedy.
Adam Summers is a policy analyst at Reason Foundation.