Jewish World Review April 23, 2002 / 12 Iyar, 5762
http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | Taxes again have come due, yet there seems to be no bill for which taxpayers are not responsible. Charity as well as welfare has become a government responsibility.
"Congress is going to rebuild Afghanistan for billions, and they can't take care of 3,200 people," complained Kenneth Foster, husband of one of the Sept. 11 victims, at a public hearing.
In his view, and that of many other victims' families, the Sept. 11 Victims' Compensation Fund was being far too stingy, even when handing out multimillion dollar awards.
Under pressure, Kenneth Feinberg, the Fund's "special master," increased average awards by $200,000 to $1.85 million.
But then, Feinberg has been attacked by others for handing out too much money, to wealthier families at least. Some relatives of firefighters, policemen and restaurant workers killed in the attacks have criticized proposed economic compensation, for what victims might have earned, which ranges up to $3.8 million. The squabbling caused Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) to snarl: "It would be terrible if the families of those victims were victimized again." Victimized again?
Apparently receiving "only" a few hundred thousand dollars, gratis, from the taxpayers, is equivalent to being murdered by terrorists. Who but a congressman could spout such nonsense? In fact, the problem is not that the federal government's compensation rules are unfair. The problem is that there are federal compensation rules at all.
The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 were uniquely hideous, but not unique. Americans, such as Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, frequently have been targeted at home and abroad.
The resulting injuries and deaths are no less tragic than those of Sept. 11. But until now, government has never compensated the unfortunate victims, even in the Oklahoma City bombing, an attack on a federal building, in which non-federal employees collected nothing. And no victims, including Foreign Service officers, received anything after the 1998 embassy bombings.
Responsibility has always rested on individuals -- that's why life insurance exists -- as well as their charitable neighbors. The latter responded in a staggering variety of ways after Sept. 11. The private relief efforts were not without problems. Yet criticism, backed by a threat to stop contributing, disciplined errant organizations.
Average people have no similar influence over the federal effort. Feinberg, a partisan Democrat, told those complaining about compensation levels: "If that number is going to be changed, it will have to be by Republicans applying pressure to the administration." May the best lobbyist win.
Fairness and need are not easily calculated in the best of circumstances. Unfortunately, Uncle Sam has hopelessly politicized relief efforts.
For instance, the family of someone who is a high earner will suffer more economically from his or her death. But why should low-income taxpayers make the rich whole?
Still, it hardly seems fair to tax the wealthy to compensate others if their losses are short-changed. And should the prudent, who purchase, say, life insurance, receive less because they are prudent?
There is another, even more pernicious impact of the government's "generosity," however. Asks Andrea Neal of the Indianapolis Star, "If we'd known the government was going to give $1.6 million on average to the families of each Sept. 11 victim, would we Americans have donated $1.5 billion in disaster charity funds?" Not likely, she answers, when there are so many other needy programs.
Why sacrifice to help others when politicians will take your money anyway? This has long been a problem with the welfare state. Russell Roberts of Washington University's Weidenbaum Center has documented how private charitable donations fell as government relief expenditures rose.
In recent years, government has steadily supplanted private voluntarism by giving grants to private groups and paying for employees for those same organizations through AmeriCorps. Now it is taking over the quintessential private act of donating in an emergency.
Giving away money responsibly has always been surprisingly hard work. But forcing givers to struggle is actually another benefit of private charity.
Real compassion requires personal sacrifice and effort, as donors assess the circumstances of need, compare the worthiness of charities, and commit their time and emotions to help. The sinews of community are strengthened as the disadvantaged are aided.
Uncle Sam reaching into people's pockets provides none of these ancillary benefits. As the Hoover Institution's David Henderson observes, the federal fund is "certainly not generosity," neither on the part of the taxpayers, who had no choice, nor "on the part of the politicians who voted for the program, because it wasn't their money."
Sept. 11 was a horrid tragedy, to which Americans responded with their legendary generosity. But if legislators want that generosity to continue in the future, they must stop acting as if political pork-barreling can substitute for genuine
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