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Affluent Christian Investor | August 22, 2017

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How Charity Can Be Selfish: Father Sirico On Bad Almsgiving

Robert Sirico

I sat down in front of a microphone and an open Skype line recently to engage in a wide ranging discussion with one of the most interesting thinkers in America today, Father Robert Sirico, founder of the Acton Institute. The interview has been divided into two parts. You can read the first part of our chat here.

The take-off point was a remarkable new collection of short documentary films called PovertyCure. To listen to the whole thing click here. Some highlights of the hour-long interview have been transcribed below for your convenience and edited for clarity:

Jerry: “Charity can be selfish, can’t it?”

Fr. Sirico: “Yeah, it can be very self-indulgent.”

Jerry: “Let’s say ‘philanthropy’. I mean, genuine charity is a Christian virtue, but the philanthropy industry can be selfishly structured and selfishly supported.”

Fr. Sirico: “Well, what we look at in PovertyCure in one of the episodes is all of the different elements (especially in international grants and aid) — the NGOs that are involved in the process; we even look at the celebrities and how this comes up every few years where people are saying, “Help us, let’s do this food for Africa,” or the U.N.’s effort to tax all the nations 1% of their GDP, the Millennium Goals project. All of these different things that come up every few years that are part of this whole poverty industry, and how dangerous that is because it distorts all of the incentives and removes the centerpiece of the ladder for the poor to actually climb up out of poverty, because it removes the profit incentive for people to come and invest and train people in a workforce that’s ultimately productive.”

Jerry: “There’s a quote also in that section of PovertyCure, from Sir Bob Geldof: “We need to do something, even if it doesn’t work or help.””

Fr. Sirico: “And then do it over and over again.”

Jerry: “Isn’t that selfishness? ‘I’m trading dollars for smugness.’ If it’s genuinely charity, if it’s genuinely turning out towards someone, and if it’s genuine altruism, then you would look at the effects. Otherwise it’s just incurvatus in se. It’s just another way of building myself up, buying my charity points.”

Fr. Sirico: “And you see this in the Gospel, don’t you? With the Pharisee who gives a tenth of his belongings and does it for everyone to see, and the poor little woman is so embarrassed with the little bit that she can give, and yet she gives everything.”

Jerry: “Yes, and also the Pharisee who makes a gift to the Temple but neglects people in close proximity like his father and his mother. If you buy status with charitable dollars, that is an arms-length market transaction. It’s not actual charity.”

Fr. Sirico: “Exactly right. I think it diminishes us, because part of the brilliance of real, authentic, virtuous charity is that you’re engaged with people. You’re not just kind of coming down and dropping something on them and leaving. You’re involved with their lives and it’s reciprocal; you receive something spiritual for the encounter that you have in helping somebody in need.”

Jerry: “What would you say to somebody who is right now getting hammered by the philanthropy industry? Maybe in the past they haven’t been cautious, just, “Yes, I’m going to give to the thing with the hungriest-looking child on the TV screen or the one that jerks my heart strings the most.” What would you say to someone about how they negotiate the philanthropy industry when they’re making their decisions?”

Fr. Sirico: “There are all these wonderful online sites now [like] Guidestar, which tells you what percentage of the amount of money is used for fundraising and various things, and how much money really gets to the poor. That’s one of the things that you can use. I think word-of-mouth is good. And I think if you’re just looking for something to do at Christmas—because a lot of people do that; always at Thanksgiving and Christmas people show up at soup kitchens wanting to work. “Where are you the rest of the year when we need you,” is the kind of response of people who are actually in this kind of care. I think the thing to do is call a local pastor and say, “Is there somebody in your congregation who you know [and] who needs some help?” Because that pastor is going to know. [I] just had it today in my own parish: There’s a woman who needs some help, her car is breaking down, she’s going through a divorce, and providentially enough somebody came to the church and said, “Here’s some money for this, and here’s some money for a poor parishioner.” And so we just gave it to her. But we know her, we know the kids, we know the family, and we don’t encourage any kind of abuse. I tend not to give to people who just come up to you or come up to the door or just stop you on the street, because very often that’s not good charity. What you want to do is get involved with somebody, even if you just take them out to lunch. I’ve had that happen… In Chicago, I met a guy and I just took him to a place to sit down. It took me 45 minutes and I got to know this guy and his son. These were legitimate people just having a hard time. People do. Not everybody wants to exploit you but you’ve got to do your due diligence as well.”

Jerry: “We as a family try to never give except relationally. If there’s no relationship, then it seems to be an inferior form or in some cases maybe even a negative value creation form of charity.”

Fr. Sirico: “Yeah. In some cases I have done that, and I figure, “Well, I’ll waste a little bit of money maybe.” But certainly as a general policy I’d rather invest my time in a person and get to know them, even if it’s just a little bit.”

Fr. Sirico: “Yeah, it can be very self-indulgent.”

Jerry: “Let’s say ‘philanthropy’. I mean, genuine charity is a Christian virtue, but the philanthropy industry can be selfishly structured and selfishly supported.”

Fr. Sirico: “Well, what we look at in PovertyCure in one of the episodes is all of the different elements (especially in international grants and aid) — the NGOs that are involved in the process; we even look at the celebrities and how this comes up every few years where people are saying, “Help us, let’s do this food for Africa,” or the U.N.’s effort to tax all the nations 1% of their GDP, the Millennium Goals project. All of these different things that come up every few years that are part of this whole poverty industry, and how dangerous that is because it distorts all of the incentives and removes the centerpiece of the ladder for the poor to actually climb up out of poverty, because it removes the profit incentive for people to come and invest and train people in a workforce that’s ultimately productive.”

Jerry: “There’s a quote also in that section of PovertyCure, from Sir Bob Geldof: “We need to do something, even if it doesn’t work or help.””

Fr. Sirico: “And then do it over and over again.”

Jerry: “Isn’t that selfishness? ‘I’m trading dollars for smugness.’ If it’s genuinely charity, if it’s genuinely turning out towards someone, and if it’s genuine altruism, then you would look at the effects. Otherwise it’s just incurvatus in se. It’s just another way of building myself up, buying my charity points.”

Fr. Sirico: “And you see this in the Gospel, don’t you? With the Pharisee who gives a tenth of his belongings and does it for everyone to see, and the poor little woman is so embarrassed with the little bit that she can give, and yet she gives everything.”

Jerry: “Yes, and also the Pharisee who makes a gift to the Temple but neglects people in close proximity like his father and his mother. If you buy status with charitable dollars, that is an arms-length market transaction. It’s not actual charity.”

Fr. Sirico: “Exactly right. I think it diminishes us, because part of the brilliance of real, authentic, virtuous charity is that you’re engaged with people. You’re not just kind of coming down and dropping something on them and leaving. You’re involved with their lives and it’s reciprocal; you receive something spiritual for the encounter that you have in helping somebody in need.”

Jerry: “What would you say to somebody who is right now getting hammered by the philanthropy industry? Maybe in the past they haven’t been cautious, just, “Yes, I’m going to give to the thing with the hungriest-looking child on the TV screen or the one that jerks my heart strings the most.” What would you say to someone about how they negotiate the philanthropy industry when they’re making their decisions?”

Fr. Sirico: “There are all these wonderful online sites now [like] Guidestar, which tells you what percentage of the amount of money is used for fundraising and various things, and how much money really gets to the poor. That’s one of the things that you can use. I think word-of-mouth is good. And I think if you’re just looking for something to do at Christmas—because a lot of people do that; always at Thanksgiving and Christmas people show up at soup kitchens wanting to work. “Where are you the rest of the year when we need you,” is the kind of response of people who are actually in this kind of care. I think the thing to do is call a local pastor and say, “Is there somebody in your congregation who you know [and] who needs some help?” Because that pastor is going to know. [I] just had it today in my own parish: There’s a woman who needs some help, her car is breaking down, she’s going through a divorce, and providentially enough somebody came to the church and said, “Here’s some money for this, and here’s some money for a poor parishioner.” And so we just gave it to her. But we know her, we know the kids, we know the family, and we don’t encourage any kind of abuse. I tend not to give to people who just come up to you or come up to the door or just stop you on the street, because very often that’s not good charity. What you want to do is get involved with somebody, even if you just take them out to lunch. I’ve had that happen… In Chicago, I met a guy and I just took him to a place to sit down. It took me 45 minutes and I got to know this guy and his son. These were legitimate people just having a hard time. People do. Not everybody wants to exploit you but you’ve got to do your due diligence as well.”

Jerry: “We as a family try to never give except relationally. If there’s no relationship, then it seems to be an inferior form or in some cases maybe even a negative value creation form of charity.”

Fr. Sirico: “Yeah. In some cases I have done that, and I figure, “Well, I’ll waste a little bit of money maybe.” But certainly as a general policy I’d rather invest my time in a person and get to know them, even if it’s just a little bit.”

Fr. Sirico: “Right, yeah. Because then you’re teaching them enterprise or they’re teaching themselves enterprise, and they have to pay the money back with interest. And usually what holds those groups together is the fact that they’re in local communities and that they are known in their communities, because the next person up for the loan is your neighbor, and they want to make sure that you pay that loan back so that they don’t get excluded from the possible loan. The other thing I tend to look for is the percentage of money that the charity gets from government, because the higher the percentage of money they get from government, the more bureaucratic they become. And by that I mean that some of them – when they get 60; 70; 80; 90% of their money from the government so that they’re just coming to you for the clean-up operation, they are already thinking in sync with what the bureaucracy has produced and identified as the needs of people, rather than that kind of on-the-ground personal encounter. So it’s true: We have to give institutionally because the division of labor works in charity as well as it does in the market, but I think when the government is so heavily involved, you know that the market of charity (if I may use that phrase) has been distorted.”

Fr. Sirico: “Right, yeah. Because then you’re teaching them enterprise or they’re teaching themselves enterprise, and they have to pay the money back with interest. And usually what holds those groups together is the fact that they’re in local communities and that they are known in their communities, because the next person up for the loan is your neighbor, and they want to make sure that you pay that loan back so that they don’t get excluded from the possible loan. The other thing I tend to look for is the percentage of money that the charity gets from government, because the higher the percentage of money they get from government, the more bureaucratic they become. And by that I mean that some of them – when they get 60; 70; 80; 90% of their money from the government so that they’re just coming to you for the clean-up operation, they are already thinking in sync with what the bureaucracy has produced and identified as the needs of people, rather than that kind of on-the-ground personal encounter. So it’s true: We have to give institutionally because the division of labor works in charity as well as it does in the market, but I think when the government is so heavily involved, you know that the market of charity (if I may use that phrase) has been distorted.”

Fr. Sirico: “That is so true. I just want to make sure that all those reading or listening to us understand that I’m not making the case that the market by itself is the be-all and end-all of human life. I think that there are some things that can’t be bought or sold or acquired on a market [but] that human beings nevertheless need; love is the great example of that. But if we just discard the market, [or] if we just pretend that we don’t need it, then we’re basically severing a very vital part of what makes a society function. It’s not the whole thing, but it’s something vital.”

Jerry: “Yes, and I would add that part 5 of PovertyCure is largely about the idea that faith and these institutions of love and civil society and things like family – what some people call ‘mediating institutions’ — seem to be a necessary precursor to a properly functioning market. Not only is the market not everything, but it doesn’t seem to be able to function without something underneath and around it.”

Fr. Sirico: “That’s exactly right, because it comes out of a culture.”

 

Article originally published on Forbes.com.

Jerry Bowyer is a Forbes contributor, contributing editor of AffluentInvestor.com, and Senior Fellow in Business Economics at The Center for Cultural Leadership.

Jerry has compiled an impressive record as a leading thinker in finance and economics. He worked as an auditor and a tax consultant with Arthur Anderson, as Vice President of the Beechwood Company which is the family office associated with Federated Investors, and has consulted in various privatization efforts for Allegheny County, Pennsylvania. He founded the influential economic think tank, the Allegheny Institute, and has lectured extensively at universities, businesses and civic groups.

Jerry has been a member of three investment committees, among which is Benchmark Financial, Pittsburgh’s largest financial services firm. Jerry had been a regular commentator on Fox Business News and Fox News. He was formerly a CNBC Contributor, has guest-hosted “The Kudlow Report”, and has written for CNBC.com, National Review Online, and The Wall Street Journal, as well as many other publications. He is the author of The Bush Boom and more recently The Free Market Capitalist’s Survival Guide, published by HarperCollins. Jerry is the President of Bowyer Research.

Jerry consulted extensively with the Bush White House on matters pertaining to the recent economic crisis. He has been quoted in the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Forbes Magazine, The International Herald Tribune and various local newspapers. He has been a contributing editor of National Review Online, The New York Sun and Townhall Magazine. Jerry has hosted daily radio and TV programs and was one of the founding members of WQED’s On-Q Friday Roundtable. He has guest-hosted the Bill Bennett radio program as well as radio programs in Chicago, Dallas and Los Angeles.

Jerry is the former host of WorldView, a nationally syndicated Sunday-morning political talk show created on the model of Meet The Press. On WorldView, Jerry interviewed distinguished guests including the Vice President, Treasury Secretary, HUD Secretary, former Secretary of Sate Condoleezza Rice, former Presidential Advisor Carl Rove, former Attorney General Edwin Meese and publisher Steve Forbes.

Jerry has taught social ethics at Ottawa Theological Hall, public policy at Saint Vincent’s College, and guest lectured at Carnegie Mellon’s graduate Heinz School of Public Policy. In 1997 Jerry gave the commencement address at his alma mater, Robert Morris University. He was the youngest speaker in the history of the school, and the school received more requests for transcripts of Jerry’s speech than at any other time in its 120-year history.

Jerry lives in Pennsylvania with his wife, Susan, and the youngest five of their seven children.

 

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