Should We Help Someone Else, or Let the Government Do It?

by Burt on September 2, 2011

Karl Menninger, the famous psychologist, faced many questions on mental health. “What would you advise a person to do,” one man asked, “if that person felt a nervous breakdown coming on?” Menninger’s answer: “Lock up your house, go across the railway tracks, find someone in need, and do something to help that person.” In other words, when you have problems of your own, put some of your efforts into helping someone else solve his problems.

In U.S. history the group that has most closely followed that advice is probably our entrepreneurs. The difficulty of inventing products, marketing them, and competing to improve quality and price often threatens even the most stable entrepreneurs with a nervous breakdown. Their solution: Give into the lives of others. John D. Rockefeller, the first billionaire in U.S. history, helped set the standard. He tithed on all his earnings, and then gave way beyond that. He supported colleges all over the country; Tuskegee Institute, the nation’s premiere black college, survived and expanded because of Rockefeller’s generosity. He also financed cures for meningitis and for eradicating the boll weevil. Rockefeller believed that helping others directly with his giving was just as important as selling the cheapest oil in the world. His company, Standard Oil, refined more than 60% of the oil used by the whole world in the late 1800s (the U.S. today imports almost three-fourths of its oil). But the jobs created by Rockefeller, and the money saved by his customers, only satisfied him in part. To be whole, he poured himself into the lives of others. He taught his children how to ride bikes, and he took missionaries to lunch. He built parks and recreation areas for people to enjoy.

When entrepreneurs see needs in society and work to fill those needs, they are doing for society what they do for business. Ben Franklin lamented the destruction caused by local fires and set up privately operated fire departments; as Professor Blaine McCormick at Baylor University points out, Franklin also gave money for a library and hospital. Andrew Carnegie saw the need for education and also built libraries around the country. When Cornelius Vanderbilt saw that same need, he funded Vanderbilt University.

The entrepreneurs mentioned so far did almost all their giving before the income tax became law. Most entrepreneurs are givers because it makes them whole and also helps them do their own jobs better. Many politicians today want to tax away the wealth of our entrepreneurs because they think government can spend that money better than the entrepreneurs can. Really? James J. Hill built the Great Northern Railroad and made it profitable with no federal aid whatsoever. But today AmTrak creates annual deficits of more than one billion dollars per year. When Clara Barton founded the Red Cross in 1881, it was a light to the downtrodden, giving food and shelter to people devastated by fires and natural disasters. Today, FEMA spends billions more and is followed by a trail of complaints wherever it goes.

Limited government means more freedom for more Americans and more chance for all of us to use our money and our time, as Karl Menninger suggests, to “go across the railway tracks, find someone in need, and do something to help that person.”

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