The United States holds two clear titles. It is the world’s most capitalistic nation and the most charitable. But the twin titles seem to be a contradiction in terms. Capitalism, as its opponents have traditionally defined it, supposedly is the philosophy of taking from the poor and enriching the wealthy. The cynical saying sums it up: “The rich get richer and the poor get poorer.” Meanwhile, socialistic nations which feature fairness to all citizens have an unimpressive charitable profile. Clearly the socialists have won the propaganda war, but just as clearly capitalistic America has the charitable superiority. Something seems amiss in our traditional assumptions. So let us look again at the matter.

Apparently, even before the time of Patriarch Abraham (circa 1800 BCE), the ancient Hebrews had already established the system of tithing to support the poor. But since the tithe was mandated and later included as such in the Torah, the book of laws or instruction, it is questionable whether tithing was charity in the modern sense of voluntary giving. Aristotle (384-322 BCE) touched on the topic of charity in his politics. In it he rejected the Socratic model of community property, including wives and children, by pointing out that what Socrates claimed would unite the state would actually destroy it by weakening familial and personal bonds. Children and wives of everybody are really wives and children of nobody. He notes that the pleasure of owning property prompts men to offer “kindness or service to friends or guests or companions.” And this, he repeats, “can only be rendered when a man has private property.” He comes to this common-sense conclusion: those who own nothing have nothing to give and in a communal state no compelling reason to do so even if they did.

Twenty-four centuries later — the pattern still holds. Charity is modest in socialistic states and minimal in extreme Marxist versions in which citizens may farm land and use property but cannot really own it. On the other hand, French thinker Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) wrote approvingly in 1835 of the charitable nature of early American shopkeepers and farmers and believed that it boded well for the future of the young Republic. In 1643, Harvard University, at that time a Christian institution, held the first fund drive, raising 500 pounds. Compare that to the most recent national charitable survey that I have seen — 2013 — according to which more than $335 billion was donated to charities. The charitable percentages show no signs of slacking.

There is no question that charitable giving in America is in large measure a consequence of religious affiliation, primarily Christian and Jewish. But it is by no means entirely a religious phenomenon. This brings us back to Aristotle’s comment about the psychological pleasure of giving, especially of one’s excess. Many of the wealthiest Americans spend much of their time giving away their money. What about you? I admit I give most of mine away too, though not willingly.

Harold Raley is a professor, linguist, writer and philosopher. Email

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