Last October, I posted a picture on Tumblr, the online blogging website, of the Top 5 Super PAC donors of 2012. Super Political Action Committees (PACs) are groups that advocate for certain public policy and electoral candidates with none of the traditional limits on spending that existed before 2010. Casino mogul Sheldon Adelson came out as the top donor with $37.8 million donated. I followed that picture with a comment:
”Are you kidding me!! 37.8 MILLION! DO YOU KNOW WHAT I COULD DO WITH THAT MONEY! I could go to college, I could pay my parents’ mortgage, I could buy a car, I could pay for gas, I could donate it to a much worthier cause. Sigh….”
Up until that moment, PACs had struck me as unfair and wasteful, because rich people shouldn’t be able to have a louder voice in elections than poor people do and because the money could have been spent on worthier causes.
But then it hit me: we can do whatever we want with the things that belong to us. As much as I despised how this money was being allocated, I had no right to decide how Adelson’s money should be spent. Even if I told him that he should be using those funds to help the plight of the homeless, the illiterate, the starving or the marginalized, the way the money should be spent would ultimately be up to his discretion, and he could do so without the qualms of being morally obligated to help anyone.
Think about it this way: On Friday, your parents give you $20 to go to the movies. You only need $15 to purchase your ticket. On Saturday, you come across a homeless man who asks you for any spare change. Are you forced to give him your extra five, just because it happens to be “extra?” No, you aren’t. Charity is not an obligation but a choice, even if the homeless man seems to need it more than you do.
Harvard Professor Michael Sandel wrote in his 2007 book Justice: What’s The Right Thing to Do?, “Needs don’t triumph my fundamental right to do what I want with the things I own.” Capitalism works in a similar fashion; we allow for an unfettered market economy that maximizes fiscal growth and individual freedoms. This is why you’re not forced to donate blood or your kidney just because someone else needs it more than you do. Adelson is in a similar situation; the only difference is that he just happens to have a lot more than five extra bucks in his pocket.
Some might argue that rich people are indebted to society and should pay some money back to cover the conditions and institutions that led to success. Should Adelson make donations to compensate for all the contributions that teachers, parents and the government made to his success? No. No one ever takes a job or makes money under contract to help those who helped her get there.
I believe that the rich should help the poor, but to say that charity is a moral obligation would be inaccurate and unfair. We all have the capability to assist others, but by saying that helping the less fortunate is mandatory, the act of helping ceases to become a moral choice. The word obligation is loaded with the implication that the act of “good will” is done under the circumstances of being compelled. The desire to give a lending hand should come out of the goodness of one’s heart—not for tax breaks or for a good photo op.