Yeshiva University professor James Otteson has a particular interest in philanthropy. This is excerpted from his essay “The Gospel of Wealth” and True Philanthropy, published in Conversations on Philanthropy.
“It were better for mankind that the millions of the rich were thrown into the sea than so spent as to encourage the slothful, the drunken, the unworthy.” —Carnegie
Andrew Carnegie (1835–1919) was one of the wealthiest men in the world during his lifetime, and indeed one of the wealthiest men in the history of the world, in inflation-adjusted terms. In 1901 Carnegie sold his interest in U.S. Steel to J. P. Morgan for $480,000,000, the equivalent of more than $10 billion today, of which approximately $250 million (some $5 billion today) went directly to Carnegie himself. But Carnegie was not only a single-minded businessman. He also reflected deeply on the obligations people of wealth have toward their needier brethren.
In 1889 Carnegie wrote an essay, “The Gospel of Wealth,” in which he argued against what he called “indiscriminate almsgiving.” He began with the claim that there is a legitimate and important distinction between deserving and non-deserving poor. Some people, Carnegie argued, are poor through no fault of their own: sometimes circumstances conspire against one, making it difficult to get ahead despite one’s best efforts. Such people, Carnegie said, deserve our help. On the other hand, some people are poor because of decisions they made that led to bad consequences. These, Carnegie thought, do not deserve our help. But because indiscriminate almsgiving does not heed this distinction, it rewards not only behavior that should be rewarded—such as effort, industry, and persistence—but also behavior that should not be rewarded—such as imprudence, irresponsibility, and idleness. Carnegie minces no words about this: “It were better for mankind that the millions of the rich were thrown into the sea than so spent as to encourage the slothful, the drunken, the unworthy.”
According to Carnegie, the wealthy person who gives to those asking for money without first determining whether the proposed recipient is deserving actually causes not one but two kinds of bad consequences. First, he encourages the undeserving to continue in their wayward behavior, by decreasing the costs of indulgence, and second, he discourages the deserving from continuing their industry and effort, by showing them that it is pointless. If they receive reward regardless of whether they put forth effort, why, all else being equal, would people want to continue putting forth effort? Thus in addition to enabling the idle and irresponsible poor to remain idle and irresponsible, the indiscriminate almsgiver works to increase their numbers by spreading a “moral infection” that slowly but inexorably converts their industrious brethren to consider the less noble but “easier path” of dependence. These facts, Carnegie thought, licensed calling indiscriminate almsgiving a “cancer” on society and indeed characterizing its effects as “evil.”
Find those who deserve help, find ways of giving that actually help them, and do it now.
Carnegie was well aware that his position faces the practical problem of how to know whether a person asking for money is deserving. Even more difficult is to know whether a representative of the poor who is asking for money intends to, and in fact will, give the money only to those who deserve it. It is precisely this difficulty of gathering crucial information that Carnegie thought made effective giving such a daunting prospect: “Unless the individual giver knows the person or family in misfortune, their habits, conduct, and cause of distress, and knows that help given will aid them to help themselves, he cannot act properly.” However, because he believed that the “man of wealth” should become a “trustee and agent for his poorer brethren” and “he who dies rich dies disgraced,” the moral imperative becomes urgent: find those who deserve help, find ways of giving that actually help them, and do it now.
Carnegie’s suggested avenues of help included founding museums, concert halls, libraries, and even universities—things that ministered not to people’s immediate material or physical needs but instead to the higher aspects of their humanity. Critics derided his suggestions for just this reason: what need has a hungry man for a library? He cannot, after all, eat the books. But Carnegie’s aim was to address not what merely kept people alive but rather, as Steven Grosby puts it, “what it means to be human.” . . . When we offer someone a meal or money without asking how he got to his sorry state or offering to work together on strategies to rise out of it, we may stave off his hunger for a while, but our obligations to him are not yet fulfilled. We intend to refrain from judging him or embarrassing him, but by not engaging him in these serious conversations we treat him as if bodily needs are all there is to him. Asking him to give an account of himself and his actions, by contrast, displays our understanding that he is a reasoning and accountable creature; it manifests our belief that, whatever difficulties he may face, he is capable of taking steps to address them. It shows that we understand that his life is his own; it treats him like an adult; it treats him like a human being.