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Ron Paul's Charity: Libertarian Views Fail Reality Test

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In this series of articles, HuffPost is taking a close look at the charitable giving of Republican presidential candidates. How much and to whom did they give? How does their giving compare with their fellow Americans? And what impact did they ultimately have?

WASHINGTON -- Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) looked slightly out of place at a black tie dinner last December, as he accepted a Lifetime Achievement Award at the National Charity Awards. Dressed in a bolo tuxedo and accompanied by his wife, Carol, the presidential hopeful barely mentioned charity in his speech to the group, choosing to focus on two favorite topics: the unconstitutionality of high taxes and the abuses of the Federal Reserve Bank. Nearing the end, he summed up his view of charity in one deceptively simple sentence. "We should take care of ourselves and our families, and for those who need special help, a generous society [is the answer]," he said.

This "generous society" forms a pillar of Paul's libertarian vision of a nation with radically limited government. If Paul were to get his way, he would abolish Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, and in their place, he believes private, donor-funded charities would step in to voluntarily assume the responsibilities of America's three biggest social safety nets -- programs that cost the federal government $440 billion in 2008.

More than perhaps any other presidential candidate, Paul believes that private philanthropy is capable of providing assistance on par with what the federal government provides today, Of course, certain conditions need to be met before private donors will step into these roles. Chief among them, Paul said in 2003 on the House floor, is that the federal government must free the American people "from the excessive tax burden, so they can devote more of their resources to charity."

In Paul's opinion, high taxes and inflation deprive Americans of money that they would otherwise give to charity. Programs like Medicare, he says, brought about the demise of "voluntary charities and organizations, such as friendly societies, that devoted themselves to helping those in need" during the early 20th century. These civic groups, he claims, "flourished in the days before the welfare state turned charity into a government function."

But according to Dr. Leslie Lenkowsky of Indiana University's Center on Philanthropy, data on decades of American philanthropy squarely contradicts Paul's opinion. "All things being equal, Americans today give more than twice as much of our GDP to charity than they did in 1930," he told The Huffington Post. "And Mr. Paul's notion that private donors could ever wholly replace government social welfare programs? Well, it's a fantasy."

Lenkowsky served in three presidential administrations, most recently that of George W. Bush, where he was CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service. "No one, not even Herbert Hoover, ever seriously advocated for the idea that government has no role to play in providing social services," he added.

Like much of his economic libertarianism, Paul's theory on charity relies on proving a negative, namely that if only the government would cease to aid the poor, then private philanthropy could finally achieve its full potential -- something that's never been proven in the real world. A spokesman for Paul declined to respond to questions from HuffPost.

Theory Vs. Practice

Despite the gaps in Paul's theories, on an individual scale, the lawmaker appears to practice what he preaches. An obstetrician by trade, Paul frequently reminds voters that he refused to accept government-issued Medicare or Medicaid payments from patients during his time in private practice. Instead, he chose to offer services at reduced prices for those struggling to pay -- implying that in a society free of subsidized healthcare, more doctors would do as he did.

Paul also opposes funding the Federal Emergency Management Agency, arguing that citizens were better off before in disasters before the agency was created. Last month, he inexplicably cited 1900 as a model year for disaster relief. That year, more than 6,000 people died as a result of hurricanes in his own state of Texas.

Like the candidate himself, Paul's intensely loyal supporters occasionally band together to offer an example of how individuals can improve their communities. This June, a group called "Charity for Liberty" organized two days of community-based charity activities via Facebook. The group wrote, "Liberty loving supporters of Ron Paul are organizing to spend a weekend doing charitable outreach -- not to promote Ron Paul or his candidacy, but to show that individuals through voluntary action don't have to wait for political solutions, but that they are the solution."

The site also encouraged volunteers to "Go wearing a Ron Paul t-shirt or hat, but don't bring up the election unless asked and focus on being the change us liberty lovers are advocating for."

The group's organizer, Alex Merced, declined to respond to an email about the events, but 29 people had signed up for the Facebook page.

Limits of Generosity

But there are limits to how far Paul's concept of citizen responsibility can be applied to the real world. A striking example is the case of Paul's own longtime fundraising guru, Kent Snyder, who died of pneumonia this past July. The case of pneumonia resulted from a pre-existing condition that excluded him from access to private health insurance. As a result, Snyder, 49, died owing more than $400,000 in unpaid hospital bills.

During a Sept. 13 Republican debate, Paul said that private charities and religious groups should provide medical care for the uninsured -- a strategy which been labeled unrealistic by both liberals and conservatives .

Does Paul really think that private charities could have taken care of the costs of treating a patient like Snyder? "Not today," Paul told CNN after the debate. The reason, Paul believes, is that "government has run up the cost" of healthcare so much that it is artificially unaffordable. The elimination of Medicare and Medicaid, he claims, would drive down prices.

Fundamentally, Paul believes healthcare is a consumer good, which should be available to those who can afford to buy it. This view differs sharply from President Obama's belief that healthcare is the right of every American citizen.

A campaign spokesman said Paul made a personal donation to help with Snyder's bills, part of a grand total of approximately $32,000 raised by Snyder's friends and colleagues to help offset the costs of his care. Snyder's mother will be responsible for the remainder -- approximately $368,000.

If friends can't make up the costs of medical care, Paul said at the Sept. 13 debate that "our churches" used to assist with medical care for the uninsured. HuffPost blogger Dr. Bob Crittenden asked the General Secretary James Winkler of the Society of the United Methodist Church whether his 33,000 congregations could fill the gap for their uninsured members' healthcare. Winkler answered with a resounding no. "A great many of these churches struggle simply to pay the health care premiums of the pastor," he said. "It is inconceivable that local churches in the United States could possibly cover the medical expenses of the uninsured. They do not do so now and could not do so if the Medicare program were terminated."

As Dr. Lenkowsky put it, "Paul's theory misreads the nature of American philanthropy. And the facts just don't back it up."

For Part 1 on Texas Gov. Rick Perry's charitable giving, click here. For Part 2 on Mitt Romney, click here. For Part 3 on Michele Bachmann, click here. For Part 4 on Herman Cain, click here. For Part 4 on Jon Huntsman, click here.

Also on The Huffington Post

2012 Presidential Candidates: How Charitable Are They?
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