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Virginia: Straight to the Point
The Cavalier Daily
Austin Raynor

March 2, 2011
View the Original Article

THE LIVING Wage Campaign at the University — represented in part by Workers and Students United — hosted a rally last week to raise awareness of its agenda and attempt to pressure school administrators to consent to instituting an artificial minimum wage for all University employees. In addition to rallying, the group has engaged in private lobbying efforts and has conducted student education events. What conspicuously is absent from WASU’s agenda, however, is any direct aid to those who the group ostensibly was formed to support: University workers themselves.

WASU’s approach to social justice is indicative of a broader trend in which charity-minded individuals, rather than performing charitable work themselves, petition government to do it for them. For instance, instead of raising money to pay salary bonuses to University employees, WASU simply demands that the University raise their wages. This same approach was demonstrated in last year’s national debate over health care reform. Rather than volunteering at free clinics or donating to medical charities, those supposedly concerned about access to health care for the underprivileged simply demanded that the government do the work for them.

In some cases, there is systemic government oppression and the only option for social reformers is to request alterations to government policy. These cases typically involve overt infringement by the government upon individual liberties. When the government actively is repressing a subgroup, direct petition of government is necessary. In most social justice issues, however, individuals and private groups can solve the problem themselves without involving the government. This frequently is the case when the reformers’ sole complaint is inadequate material resources on the part of the underprivileged. Government welfare does not serve any function that private charity could not displace.

Privately addressing social justice issues is preferable whenever possible for a variety of reasons. The primary advantage of private philanthropy, as opposed to government welfare, is that private charity is voluntary. The institution of a government program supported by taxes necessarily involves transferring money from those who do not wish to support the program to the program’s recipients. Private charity, in contrast, is limited in its fundraising success by its ability to convince potential donors of the worthiness of a particular cause. In short, private philanthropy does not involve stealing money from unwilling donors and weeds out the undeserving causes from the deserving ones.

Private charity also requires individuals to take responsibility for social problems. As reliance on government increases, individual motivation to engage in charitable work decreases, as evidenced by America’s remarkably high philanthropy rates in comparison to those of our European counterparts. In the modern regulatory state there is a broad tendency simply to pass responsibility for social failings on to governmental institutions, when in fact many of these failings could be remedied through private effort. Private charity requires individuals to stand up for their beliefs and actively become engaged.

Private philanthropy places the onus of social problems where it should be: on individuals. Engaging in charity and fighting for a worthy cause are noble pursuits. There is nothing noble about being willing to spend someone else’s money. WASU and their government-obsessed brethren fashion themselves as moral crusaders, but there is nothing moral or admirable about insisting that someone else fix a social problem. It is an easy task to support a cause that requires no sacrifice on your part.

If WASU is truly serious about the perceived underpayment of University employees, it should attack the issue directly. It could raise money for a trust fund and disburse the yearly return to low-paid workers. It also could arrange to provide various services, apart from salary subsidies, that would improve the quality of life for University employees, such as child care, language classes, job training or health care. There are numerous outlets for the charitable impulse that involve direct aid to underprivileged groups and do not include demanding the government do the work for you.

Private charity has a rich and vibrant place in the American tradition. One problem with a government-provided social safety net is that it not only relieves us of our responsibility to care for ourselves, but also of our responsibility to care for others. The private paradigm requires individuals to fulfill the moral demands of charity directly rather than foisting these responsibilities on others. According to fourth-year College student and WASU organizer Greg Casar, a significant majority of WASU members volunteer, independently of their WASU commitments, with organizations that aid the underprivileged directly. This commitment to social justice is certainly commendable; it would improve WASU greatly as an organization, however, if it incorporated these efforts directly into its activism program.