Recently, I had an unusual experience – It intrigued me so much that I had to write about it:
I am a member of or have been a member of many different organizations in the last 25 years or so. Most of the time they are specific cause charities, for example boys clubs or scouts. For the purpose of this entry, I’ll not identify the organization I am writing about because I really do believe in their cause, and wouldn’t want the people involved to become pawns in yet another political debate.
I wasn’t the first nor the last to enter the board room as the meeting was getting underway. As is customary, the opening ceremony was completed and the course of business had gotten underway. When it came to new business, it was posited that considering the substantial devastation in Haiti and the fact that aide organizations across the world are clamoring for funds to get supplies and people on the ground there to help, it would be nice if we too would contribute to the cause. On the face it seemed like a great idea, although our annual budget is pretty low, we could put together a care package of $250, it might not be much, but it would certainly help. If more people did it, then the dollars add up pretty quickly.
Now spending money is something that I enjoy. I also really like helping people, regardless of their situation, I call it my compassionate guilt complex. When I am able and sometimes when I am not, I give of my time and money to help others. This is a weakness that I have, but I am willing to bear because of the joy that I get from knowing I was able to help someone in need. But this was different. This was money from an organization that had come together for a specific purpose, whose charter laid out the rules of conduct and whose members agreed to abide by that charter.
In many ways it is very similar to our federal government and our own system of laws. To draw a complete comparison, we can liken the Constitution to the club charter, the President would be the board chair, and the Congress would be the board members, finally the citizens of this country would be akin to our club members.
The ‘President’ called the question … after the requisite motion and second as required, ‘Congress’ entered into debate over this bill. The sentiment was unanimous. The people in Haiti are having a really tough time of it and we have the desire to help them. Considering there wasn’t alot of real discussion going on, I asked a simple question. “Mr President, does our constitution allow for us to spend money on the people in Haiti?”. The ‘President’ was honestly shocked by the question, and after a couple of minutes simply stated that it did not. So I followed up with “If our constitution doesn’t allow for us to do this, why are we even entertaining this bill?” The resounding, almost unison response from the ‘Congress’ was “Its the right thing to do to help these people. We can and we must!” … now if that sounds like a mandate, it surely did to me … its the right thing to do, we can do it, so we must do it … At this point there was much bickering and arguing back and forth between those who saw that the truth is, regardless of whether we want to do it, it is neither right nor can we just do it. As an organization bound by laws and rules, we must abide by those or risk losing the confidence in the citizens that elected us to our position. When the final vote was cast, the bill failed by a 1 vote margin.
Clearly this wasn’t our government in action, but it was a really close approximation in the private world, however the reaction was right on par with what one might see from the citizens who desperately wanted to see this bill pass. Immediately I began receiving comments about how I must hate the people in Haiti or how can I ignore their plight. These sentiments, while on the surface seemed to be correct, they were far from the truth. Regardless of how many times I said I had nothing against them and really wanted to help them but my hands were tied, as it would have been against our charter to authorize such an expenditure, they would have no part of it.
Finally, I made a comment that would cease the discussions and quieted the naysayers. I reached into my pocket and pulled out a $50 bill and laid it on the table. Of course it was already earmarked for gas, but I needed to make a point. I told the entire committee that I was donating $50 toward the recovery efforts in Haiti right then and there, and I would gladly accept any personal donations from the members of the board, up to a total of $250. After a few seconds of shock, the murmuring quieted down and I instructed the members to see me after the meeting so we could coordinate our $250 donation. Amazingly, but not unexpectedly, there was not one person who took up my offer to fund a private initiative.
Sure it was OK as long as it was someone else’s money they were giving away, but the end result was that I made my point. People feign compassion when it makes them look good, they feign conservatism when it makes them look good … in fact people generally do whatever they can to make themselves look good, except, and this is a big one, except when it requires that they actually do the deed.
So what does this teach us? If you are really concerned about people, don’t be a fake conservative, don’t let your compassion go awry and by all means, don’t fall for the rhetoric about certain things being the right thing to do. The right thing to do is to live within the constraints of our laws and rules, and if you don’t like them, work to change them.