Wednesday, November 21, 2007


When was the last time you heard the phrase “scarce resources” used to describe the allocation of government funds or even to characterize a general state of affairs (apparently persistent) within the most affluent country the world has ever known?

This ubiquitous idiom for intellectually challenged journalists wasn’t employed much, if at all, during the recent wildfire relief efforts. Evidence of affluence and of the willingness of individuals to help each other was so obvious that even the media couldn’t put a dour spin on this outpouring of altruism.

The centerpiece of this display was Qualcomm Stadium, which was regularly portrayed as the anti-Superdome. Far from simply providing food and shelter, this San Diego venue boasted live music, massage therapy, Starbucks coffee, television, toys, pizza, magazines, and a Hyatt-catered buffet that included artichoke hearts, jambalaya, and shredded-beef empanadas.

An estimated 10,000 people at “the Q” received help from about as many volunteers—and much, if not all, of the materials and services at the stadium came from private citizens and corporations that were glad to part with their “scarce resources.” Indeed, this relief station accumulated so many items that an announcement was made asking folks to stop bringing donations to the site.

As 9/11 demonstrated, disasters put things in perspective—illuminating the difference between what is petty, what is important, and what is absolutely necessary. Among the things that are absolutely necessary is taking care of each other. And in the process of doing this, surplus wealth becomes as obvious as a garage jammed with yesterday’s stuff.

Beyond donating things, however, people also need to engage in activities of support—to extend helping hands that create a sense of community and family. This person-to-person aspect of charity is largely missing when assistance becomes an entitlement.

In the entitlement system, bureaucrats calculate whether clients qualify for aid dispensed from “resources” that have been taken, under penalty of law, from faceless taxpayers. No wonder the term “charity” (from the Latin word for “love”) has acquired, in recent decades, a negative connotation. Compassion that is compelled is no longer compassion. And gifts that are not freely given, aren’t gifts.

The community outpouring of benevolence during the San Diego wildfires shows that people are eager to assist when it is clear that their aid is going to provide tangible benefits to those in need. While government can provide resources on a scale that often (not always) dwarfs private efforts, one should keep in mind that most folks don’t pay taxes cheerfully. Nor are government funds distributed with a spirit of generosity and camaraderie—since distributors are doling out benefits coerced from others.

Bottom line: The more individuals are allowed to give of themselves and of their “abundant resources,” the better off we’ll all be—both those who give and those who receive. When this is the case, journalists and bureaucrats won’t need to employ that hackneyed phrase, “scarce resources,” that should be reserved for settings where the concept actually fits.

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