What makes America, America?
If you were to ask 100 people the preceding question, you’d likely receive many different answers. However, there is something fundamentally woven into the fabric of the American spirit, yet often goes unnoticed and is assuredly underappreciated — civil society and its subset, charity.
Civil society can be defined as those intermediating institutions — large and small — that cannot be accurately described as a governmental organizations or businesses. Churches, neighborhood organizations such as the YMCA and YWCA, Boy Scouts, the Elks, cancer research organizations, Rotary clubs, literacy programs and animal advocacy groups are examples of civil society.
The phrase “local solutions for local problems” is in many ways a distillation of civil society.
Though found worldwide, civil society and charity are primarily an American phenomena. There are 1.5 million nonprofit organizations in the United States with assets totaling over $3 trillion.
In West Virginia alone, there are over 9,300 nonprofit organizations, ranging from fraternal organizations and recreational clubs to social welfare organizations and research organizations such as the Cardinal Institute for West Virginia Policy, on whose board of directors we both proudly serve.
One of the defining features of civil society is the voluntary nature of the activity. As such, there is little-to-no role for the government to play in either the organization or funding of such groups — it is true charity taking place.
While we have both decided to maximize our passion for West Virginia by giving the Cardinal Institute our time, talent and treasure, other organizations also thrive on individual commitments to their causes — ones that are freely deemed worthy of such investments.
As the noted French observer of American public life, Alexis de Tocqueville, put it in his book “Democracy in America,” “I have often admired the extreme skill with which the inhabitants of the United States succeed in proposing a common object for the exertions of a great many men and inducing them to voluntarily pursue it.”
This was noteworthy to de Tocqueville because it was so different than what he was used to seeing in Europe. He noted, “Wherever at the head of some new undertaking you see the government in France, or a man of rank in England, in the United States you will be sure to find an association.”
Unfortunately, this unique aspect of American civic life seems to be fading; our American character is atrophying.
Over-reaching government stifles philanthropy. The increasingly burdened taxpayers, lulled by the government’s siren song, trust the bureaucrats will deliver on their promises thereby obviating their need to stay informed, be involved, and donate locally. In this insidious, destructive manner, our government is undermining the cherished American tradition of charitable giving.
No doubt, there is a role for government to deliver in areas of society where the private sector cannot produce or is inadequate, but solutions that advocate for more taxes, more regulation, and more bureaucracy are often not solutions — and certainly not charity — at all.
They are simply forcing one group of people to funnel money through a bureaucracy in the vain hope that some might trickle down and solve the problem du jour.
An amorphous government promises solutions to every problem, taxes heavily to achieve its promise, delivers little in relation to what it takes, and undermines our most valued institutions in the process.
If America’s charitable sector is going to continue to not only survive, but thrive, then it must maintain its autonomy and oppose an ever-growing government that advocates that only it can fix societal ills.
As we are fully amid the season of giving, please keep in mind the power of true charity and the individual spirit to solve our community’s problems. The wellspring of American ingenuity and problem-solving continues to lie with those organizations and those people dedicated to a cause.