Japan and the Loss of American Charity

My wife handed me a newspaper clipping about the recent disaster in Japan and its aftermath, and I was struck by the reports of greatly diminished charitable donations by Americans to that beleaguered nation compared to Haiti last year, or to the victims of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Charity Navigator, an organization that ranks the financial performance of charities, noted that its survey of a dozen large U.S. charitable organizations revealed they had raised $64 million for Japan in the first six days, compared to $210 million for Haiti six days after the earthquake that devastated that Caribbean nation, and $457 million for the victims of Hurricane Katrina six days after that disaster had struck.

What is the reason for the discrepancy? Americans typically respond immediately and generously to scenes of disaster in other lands, and the sheer poverty of many of the victims of Hurricane Katrina certainly stirred the conscience of the nation.

A couple of comments in the article were telling. A college freshman declared, "I look at Japan as such a developed country...In my mind, I feel like they have the funds to handle the disaster, where Haiti didn't."

A couple lunching in Rockville was split on the issue. While the wife was planning to donate to Japan, the husband said he didn't see the need, saying the Japanese government has money to "fix it themselves."

Daniel Borochoff, president of the American Institute of Philanthropy, a charity watchdog group, said, "With Haiti there was a lot of guilt about how poor the people were and how much suffering they endured. But with Japan, it's a rich country, their GDP is similar to ours, and in many ways the needs of their people can be met by the Japanese government and the systems they have in place."

There are at least two things wrong with this picture. The first is fairly apparent.

We are now applying "means tests" to our generosity toward our fellow man in times of suffering. While I understand that there are many needs in the world to be met, many in our own backyard, the yardstick for giving should be our compassion for people in trouble. America is arguably the world's greatest economic superpower, but Japanese citizens and companies, as well as their government were, relatively speaking, exceedingly generous to the U.S. in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, according to our State Department's own news service reports at the time:

If the saying "a friend in need is a friend indeed" is true, Japan is one of the best friends the United States ever could have to provide support while so many Americans are suffering in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Japanese private citizens and the government alike have sent a virtual tsunami of assistance to the victims of Katrina, which devastated 90,000 square miles along the U.S. Gulf Coast in August.  Hundreds of thousands of people lost their homes and hundreds lost their lives.

Japan has pledged more than $1.5 million in private donations. The government of Japan has donated $200,000 in cash to the American Red Cross and some $800,000 in relief supplies -- from blankets to generators -- already are arriving to aid the most needy. Japanese firms with operations in the United States have donated some $12 million in total, including Honda Motor Corporation ($5 million), Hitachi ($1 million) and Nissan (more than $750,000).

The Japanese responded because they saw themselves in the plight of the people on the Gulf Coast. Their spontaneous outpouring of generosity was motivated by a sense of our common humanity, and they imagined how they would feel if they or their families, friends or neighbors were enduring the suffering they saw on their television screens.

You didn't hear of the Japanese withholding aid while carping about the ineptitude of state and local officials, who had days to respond to the approaching hurricane, or the foolishness of the people who didn't self-evacuate, or the failure of the federal government to immediately take command of the situation when they realized how dysfunctional it was.

To any dispassionate observer, their response to the United States in a time of great need towers over our tepid response to them in the wake of a disaster that struck without warning, wiping out entire cities and towns and leaving, at today's count, 13,392 dead and 15,133 missing.

Also of note are the hundreds of violent aftershocks which are hampering recovery efforts, fraying the nerves of the Japanese people, and taking additional lives - two more after a 6.3 magnitude temblor on Monday. The crisis brought on by the damage to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant north of Tokyo could rival Chernobyl, the worst nuclear power disaster in world history.

By comparison, the toll from Hurricane Katrina was 1,836 confirmed dead and 135 missing, with no sudden and unexpected post-hurricane jolts and no nuclear disaster to boot. If reciprocity were the yardstick of our generosity, to date we've not measured up.

The other thing that strikes a discordant note with me is more subtle but nonetheless important for us to grasp. One of the inherent expectations among the potential donors who spoke is that the Japanese government can and should "fix it themselves."

This is the extension of a mindset that has become increasingly prevalent in the United States, and encouraged by the "big government" crowd. That is, government is the only institution big enough to meet the needs of poor or distressed people. In effect, government is the charity of choice, and private charitable organizations, designed from the ground up to help people in need, are simply a supplement.

This mindset is what leads people to believe that, when the government is dysfunctional, as in Haiti, then private aid must pick up the slack. When the government is "wealthy," however, as in Japan, then that government should take the lead in delivering charitable services to its people.

When it comes to restoring public infrastructure or large-scale rebuilding efforts, government may play a major role. When it comes to feeding, clothing, sheltering or tending to the health needs of hurting people, however, whether or not they're in a disaster, there is no more inefficient delivery system on the planet than a government bureaucracy.

Philanthropic studies show that only 30 cents of every public aid dollar actually reaches the intended recipients, compared to 70 cents or more from private charities. That isn't a reflection on the heart or lack thereof of government employees, but rather the reality that a lot of palms have to be greased along the way - paychecks, facilities and their upkeep, administration costs and, yes, mismanagement and fraud.

Another problem is proximity. The farther away an entity is from the problem, the less they are able to accurately define it, devise a solution for it, and fix it. The principle of problem solving at the level closest to the problem, subsidiarity, is as old as Catholic social teaching, and is the philosophical basis for the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, which delegates powers not specifically spelled out in the Constitution to the states or the people. Author Reid Buckley describes this principle and the folly of ignoring it:

Will the American people never learn that, as a principle, to expect swift response and efficiency from government is fatuous? Will we never heed the principle of subsidiarity (in which our fathers were bred), namely that no public agency should do what a private agency can do better, and that no higher-level public agency should attempt to do what a lower-level agency can do better – that to the degree the principle of subsidiarity is violated, first local government, the state government, and then federal government wax in inefficiency? Moreover, the more powers that are invested in government, and the more powers that are wielded by government, the less well does government discharge its primary responsibilities, which are (1) defense of the commonwealth, (2) protection of the rights of citizens, and (3) support of just order.

Mr. Buckley's statement of government's primary responsibilities is not only consistent with our Constitution, but it is also Biblical. Romans 13:3-5 says:

For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.

What's missing in these statements of principle? The notion that government is a charity. There is nothing more nonsensical than assigning to a particular entity a role for which it is poorly designed.

Shoehorning a charitable role into an entity whose primary purpose is to maintain order and administer justice - "agents of wrath" - not only prevents the efficient allocation of assistance to those in need, but it has a dampening effect on the generosity of the culture overall. People no longer feel compelled to give to private charity, whether it's time, skills or money.

"Let government do it" ultimately leads to the diminution of philanthropy in society as a whole, and while Japan may have cast some light on this attitude in American society, it is, in fact, at the heart of today's debate about the role of government. By assuming duties that were and are best performed by neighbors for neighbors, government has redefined how we relate to one another, and removed personal responsibility and accountability from the provision of aid.

Assigning our God-designated duty to care for one another to a distant bureaucracy relieves us of any personal responsibility for the pain and suffering in our own backyards, and it is easier for those receiving government assistance to misuse and abuse these programs because they're accountable not to their next-door neighbor, but to "the man" - a faceless, emotionless being with whom they have no personal connection or obligation.

It will take Japan years to rebuild, but their culture of taking responsibility for one another, and what one writer describes as "the character of the Japanese people, which remains almost unflinchingly respectful, honest, and conscientious" will see them through. Although they had American help, their character was instrumental in their rise after the destruction of World War II into a global economic superpower. Their character is such that they probably aren't the least bit resentful of the muted U.S. response to their plight, but rather are expressively grateful for whatever help they receive.

America was once admired for its sense of community. Alexis de Tocqueville wrote of the America of the 1830s, "It is...in the township that the force of free peoples resides."

He found the strength of America in the intimacy of this relationship between the people and their local communities, a bond that preceded the notion of a distant central government:

...[In] America, on the contrary, one can say that the township had been organized before the county, the county before the state, the state before the Union.

As author Dr. Benjamin Wiker notes, America is a nation born from the bottom up:

Here, people know each other intimately, and govern themselves directly in the affairs that most touch their daily lives and, hence, are most near and dear to them. Here is true sovereignty of the people; here is the school of ordered liberty that provides the most solid foundation for the larger society.

Our response to Japan's plight exposed a wound to the American soul that has been there for some time, and which continues to fester and grow. Sadly, to the extent that we've abandoned community to the whims of elitists in Washington, DC, we've lost an essential part of ourselves.