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Is Toys for Tots...Communist?

(To read the rest of "Over-Reacting to COIN (Again): On Cultural Empathy and 'Gratitude Theory'", please click here. To read the entire "Our Communist Military" series, please click here.

And as we now have to clarify in each one of these posts, we don’t actually think that the military is “communist”. That’s a rhetorical stand-in for socialist, liberal, progressive, what have you.)

Like TV shows, people in real life can jump the shark. General Petraeus jumped the shark when he took over command of Afghanistan. Brett Favre jumped the shark when he joined the Vikings. Today, we have to ask ourselves, are we jumping the shark? Because we’re about to argue that the universally beloved Toys for Tots charity is...


Last year, we were knee deep debating what Michael C dubbed “gratitude theory”--the idea that if you just give people things they will start to love you--when we realized that one of the best examples of “gratitude theory” in action is the Marine Corps Reserve’s charity Toys for Tots. Luckily for us, by waiting a year, we can also connect it to “Our Communist Military”.

Unfortunately, this probably-not-actually-evil charity drastically conflicts with the conservative military ethos. If troops don’t believe giving gifts does any good in Afghanistan, why give kids presents in America? What good will it do? And is there anything more liberal than a government organization redistributing toys from the rich to the poor? We’ll answer those questions, then conclude with the real problem behind Toys for Tots.

Gratitude Theory

The basic irony of Toys for Tots is that it involves...giving something to someone. This isn’t altogether insightful, unless you’ve been following the debate over counter-insurgency. In short, opponents of population-centric COIN argue that simply giving people things--reconstructing infrastructure, giving medicine and aid, for example--won’t win the loyalty of foreign civilians. In a civil war, the thinking goes, only violence can make people fear you; they will never love you. (If you want specific examples, check out this series.)

Critics--like former Marine officer Bing West--have said it best, “counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan is a feel-good, liberal theology that is turning the United States military into the Peace Corps and undermining its ‘core competency’ — violence.”

Unless we’re in America, in which case, the Marines Corps Reserves runs one of the largest, most visible charities in the country. Either giving people things is good or it isn’t, but you can’t hate on the Peace Corp in Afghanistan then give away toys for free when you return to America.

This contradiction exposes what marines and soldiers really dislike: irregular warfare. Soldiers and marines long for a simpler time when each side wore uniforms; when wars were won by maneuver. Those wars are long gone, but Cointras don’t realize that yet.

Our Communist Military

Of course, conservatives don’t hate charity. In fact, they give to charity more than liberals! (Actually, they don’t.)

But they do think that giving "stuff" away makes people lazy. Here’s the Republican standard bearer for 2012, Mitt Romney, describing his distaste for “takers”:

“Remind them of this: If they want more stuff from government, tell them to go vote for the other guy—more free stuff. But don’t forget, nothing is really free.”   

Well, what the hell is giving away free toys?

There’s an inherent contradiction here that I don’t think the conservative movement--as opaque, unwieldy and uncontained by one word as it can be--has addressed: how does a belief that government handouts makes people lazy square with charitable giving?

You can’t say 47% of the country just wants free stuff, you can’t call half of the country moochers and takers, and then support a charity that just gives away “stuff” (in this case, toys). You can’t write one blog post bemoaning the state of unemployment insurance, and then in later blog post write about Toys for Tots without criticizing it.
Giving free toys to poor people is definitionally redistributionist. And if you’re counter-argument is, “Well, Toys for Tots is a charity, not some corrupt government program,” you’d be wrong. It’s a non-profit run by the United Marines Corps Reserves. Technically, it’s a part of the federal government redistributing toys to “moochers and takers”.

Tell those kids who are getting all those handouts, er, toys, to tell their mooching parents to go get a job.

Symptom, Not the Disease

We do have an original critique for Toys for Tots, and any charity giving out toys to needy children: it addresses a symptom, not the disease. It doesn’t solve the problem.

To (ab)use an over-wrought parable, it gives a fish (toy) instead of teaching one how to fish (addressing that child’s parent’s poverty). As a result, giving away toys makes people feel good about giving, but it doesn’t address the actual issue. I have always wondered about the reaction of the kids getting free toys. “Oh sweet, I live in a car with my parents in the Walmart parking lot, but I got a Rubik’s cube. Thank you, Marine Corps!”

We’re not against giving children toys per se. And since one of our family friends throws a party every year where we have to bring a toy, we’ll end up doing it again this year. It’s just not the most effective form of charity.

We think conservatives would agree.

eleven comments

And by the way, I brought up to Eric C the fact that technically the Marine Corps Reserve doesn’t force anyone to donate to charity the way the government forces us to pay taxes. That said, this is still a government body that gives out charity in the form of toys, and its wildly popular in conservative circles.

Clearly Marine Corps units—and I’m sure fire stations—hold contests for who can bring in the most toys. Clearly there is organizational pressure to get these toys. So some people are being forced to prop up the mooching 47% with toys subsidies and handouts, comrade.

John Galt lives!

In that vein, I still disagree with how this post doesn’t blame a poor child for his poverty but blame their hypothetical parents. That kid should take responsibility for his life and pull himself up by his size 4 boot straps. Come on kid, get a job and quit expecting government to provide you with toys.

If a child really wanted toys, he’d work for them. Or make them himself. That’s what enterprising, rich kids do.

I agree with the rational behind this post, but I think more than anything in this series so far, you will run into some serious emotional backlash.

People believe that the motive behind TfTs is altruistic, rather than a manipulative marketing ploy by the Corps (I believe people that participate in the program are doing so because they like how helping people makes them feel) and that emotional connection is the place where the comparison between TfTs and foreign aid (or warm-fuzzy COIN) will break down for many people. Nearly everyone I’ve met considers doing good things for their fellow Americans for the joy of doing it is an acceptable way to evaluate a domestic charity (I also dislike this emphasis on personal satisfaction for long-term good for the recipient), while cynical cost-benefit is used for foreign aid (and government programs). We have delineated spaces where altruism is and is not an acceptable motivation, regardless of the actions involved or outcomes and TfTs is safely in the altruistic realm.

The Toys for Tots program is “run” by the USMCR, but it is a financially independent program under the Toys for Tots Foundation. The TTF is basically independent (following financial scandels a fwew years back). It merely looks (and it is) so intertwined with the Marine Corps Reserve that for all intents and purposes, Toys for Tots is a Marine Corps Reserve program. There are strict rules about use of the logo and collections of monetary donations (resultant from the mess of a few years back). Still mqany local organizations tend to hijack the TFT logo and pitch and run their own operations.

@ Duck – We expect emotional backlash from most of our posts..it happens as we get more and more readers.

I’ll clarify we’re not “against” TfTs; we’re more interested in spreading that same good will towards Americans towards Afghans. I mean, hell, which country could use it more? I was just talking with a co-worker about how miserably poor that country is.

(And as we wrote in the second section, it’s not liberals who follow anti-charity philosophers like Ayn Rand.)

@ Derek – Great info there.

Duck I completely agree with this line: “(I also dislike this emphasis on personal satisfaction for long-term good for the recipient), while cynical cost-benefit is used for foreign aid (and government programs)”.

I think most American charity/not-for-profit work goes towards other Americans while—as philosopher Peter Singer argues in The Life You Can Save—the cost of a pair of shoes can keep a kid alive in Africa for a year. Yet, we donate money within America. Its food for thought, which is why I charity should be distributed utilitarian wise, but it isn’t

Just to play a little devil’s advocate with regard to the gratitude theory, I’d like to just point out that there is a major difference between the giving of gifts in Afghanistan from the TfT program. Namely one uses tax payer money to give gifts without their consent whereas TfT is a voluntary donation. There are some that would decry the former as use of taxpayer money for a purpose other than that for which it was allocated.

I think there are rather a lot of problems with this argument.

First the object of giving a toy to a little kid is not to get that kid’s parent to support your side with info and manpower. It is to make that little kid happy for just a little while and by doing so the guys who give the toys feel happy for just a little while. The stated and implicit objectives of the two things are vastly different. Your statement equating the two “Either giving people things is good or it isn’t,” is like equating catch and release fishing at the local trout club with fishing out the Atlantic cod and say “Either fishing is good or it isn’t.” The two things are so different as to make a statement comparing them thusly a distortion.

You do more or less the same thing when you compare an overdeveloped welfare state with a giving a little kid a toy once a year. The objection to an over developed welfare state is that it tends to give an irresistible temptation to susceptible adults. It cannot be equated to handing 7 year old a toy this one Christmas or the next. You guys are vastly overreaching in your comparison. The two things aren’t the same.

As far as calling giving a little kid a toy “redistributionist”…I’ll impose a definition first. The way you guys are using “redistibutionist” it sounds to me like you are talking government policy regarding taxing people (taking money by force), and giving that money to other people, the tax payer having no say in where it goes. Toys For Tots donations are voluntary and they are specific. The person who gives that money has decided for himself where it will go. Those two things make the difference between Toys for Tots and ‘redistribution’ the difference between donating blood and being the victim of a vampire.

Now you can argue if giving to Toys for Tots is as wise as giving to StandProud (shameless boostering for a good cause to come). But the angle from which you criticize the program seems to me to be just an attempt to ‘gotcha’ American conservatives.

StandProud (http://www.standproud.org/index.htm) is an organization that helps mostly juvenile polio victims in the Congo with braces and surgery. I have seen these guys, mostly Congolese, and what they do in person and they make that Yankee dollar go farther and do more than you might believe possible. They still have polio victims in Congo. You ain’t seen something until you have seen guys scuttling across the ground like human spiders because of polio. You should give.

Michael and Eric, I don’t want to violate any protocols but StandProud is such a good cause I’ll chance it.

Carl – No the advertising for StandProud is welcome. I haven’t heard of them, and before I donate to any philanthropy I always check them out anyways, but it sounds exactly like the charities Americans need to support more.

I understand the idea that we are trying to do “gotcha” to conservatives, and yeah, a little of that is in there. However, our main theme with this series is that way too much of conservative ideology has huge contradictions. Soldiers distributed toys all over Afghanistan to make themselves feel good too. My men helped do it. While it isn’t quite the same, there are similarities. And I pointed out the difference between redistribution and charity when we first wrote the post. Nevertheless, critics of “population-centric COIN” pretend like providing reconstruction aid actually hurts the warfighting effort. That can’t possibly be true.