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Let’s say you make a dccent living and have a little cash left over after expenses and investments.  Being a socially conscious person, you want to use it to help the needy.  So what is the best way to spend your money?

a) give it to the United Way;

b) give it to a beggar on the street;

c) give it to a local after-school program (sports, computers, science, etc.);

d) help sponsor your work collegue’s kid’s hockey trip to France;

e) overpay your taxes.

Answer after the flip!

Now, I’m guessing, most of you would have no trouble with a) or c), or to a lesser extent d).  You would have strong reservations about doing b) and you snicker at even the thought of doing e).  What I wish to explore is how our choices define a philosophy that can be very nearsighted and, it could be argued, counterproductive.

If you approve of a), you are implicitly agreeing with the principle that private citizens should contribute to the underpriviledged’s most basic needs.  You are essentially absovling the local, state or federal government of a presumed obligation to provide basic necessities for its citizens.  Is that a good idea?  Well sure, if you want the problem solved and don’t have faith in your government.  You are essentially making an economically conservative, anti-government decision.

As for b), there is the additional concern that one’s act of giving may in fact be detrimental to the recipient, such as fueling a drug or alcohol addiction.  But the same principle applies here too: why you?  Why aren’t all of us, in the form of a government service, helping this poor person?  Is it because we don’t believe government should be doing it at all, or because we don’t believe it is competent or willing enough to do it?

The danger with the sentiment behind a) is that it erodes the notion of public responsibility.  What about your greedy neighbor, who has more disposable income than you do, yet chooses to blow it all on ripple and hookers?  Even if you don’t begrudge him personally, what of the poor people who won’t get their food stamps because of his lack of social conscience?  Alternately, what if he banks/invests the money and is able to buy a bigger house sooner, because you gave to charity and he didn’t?

Most people hate paying taxes (yes, me too).   We have to hand over our hard-earned money to a big, faceless, inefficient, often moronic bureaucracy.  That bureaucracy is then responsible for allocating it according to society’s needs.  It does so with varying degrees of success, never quite in the way a typical private citizen would want.  It often priviledges the wealthy and well-connected at the expense of hardworking middle-class citizens.  Trusting government with our money voluntarily seems insane.

But how else can it be done fairly?  A government’s shortcomings should not be used as an excuse to not even try to make it better.  If one considers say, feeding the homeless, a public responsibility, one should ensure that the responsibility be met by the largest number of people so as not to overly burden any of them.

I would argue that many inefficiencies of government can be attributed to its public servants as well as its taxpayers lack of commitment to spending the money wisely.  The cycle of tax evasion, indifferent government workers and shoddy government services necessitating private charities is self-perpetuating.  Cut out the private charities, and all of a sudden the suffering of the underpriviledged at least comes to light.  Government will then feel the public pressure (assuming we still care about one another) to attend to its humanitarian responsibilities.  If this costs more, well, at least it can raise the money more fairly, through taxes, than charities with their TV adds that guilt the tenderhearted.

Are government-run services more efficient than private charities?  I don’t know, but I would imagine that under the current system they are not.  No matter: the point is to make government better by not attempting to circumvent it at every turn.  This, to me, is the main argument against giving to private charities that offer basic services.

Which brings us back to the original choice.  What about option c)?  Well, after-school programs are by definition not considered an essential part of a child’s education.  Donating to such a program makes sense, if one considers it a priviledge, albeit a worthwhile one, that society as a whole should not have to pay for.

Ironically, option d),  which seems to be the most frivolous use of your money, is the most justifiable according to a liberal economic philosophy.  The hockey trip cannot be considered a necessity; taxpayers would surely not agree to finance international trips for all students.  No government service is being absolved or undermined by your contribution.  Giving towards a worthy priviledge in no way contradicts the philosophy proposed here.

e) sounds like a sick joke, but it shouldn’t be.  In fact, John D. Rockefeller, one of the richest men of the modern age to have to pay an income tax, famously ordered his accountants not to hunt for every little deduction and loophole, because he believed in paying his fair share.  Taxes, as the linguist George Lakoff says, is paying your dues to society.   If you feel not enough is demanded of you, it makes sense to overpay them.  No, I don’t, but I would before I gave a dime to the United Way.

The argument being presented here is essentially a liberal one.  Freedom of choice, both economic and social, for all citizens.  A belief in good government, (rather than the cynical misnomer "small government" conservatives always chase but can never seem to catch), where the misery of the few can be lessened by the collective effort of the many.

I admire those who give their time and money to private charities.  I simply think that committed, properly funded, professional public servants could do much more.

Of course, in order to transform goverment for the better, one must wield political power.  This applies to all levels of government.  The soup kitchen volunteer may be filling empty stomachs, but the campaign worker for the city councilwoman with the affordable housing plan is very likely doing more good.

Cross-posted at The Mean Free Path.

Originally posted to Cream Puff on Mon Mar 19, 2007 at 02:00 PM PDT.

Poll

What's the best way to bridge the disconnect between taxpayers and government spending?

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Comment Preferences

  •  My own take (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    badger, Fabian, wondering if

    on a theory already expanded on by Lakoff and Jérôme à Paris, among others.

    Seek first and final principles at The Mean Free Path.

    by Cream Puff on Mon Mar 19, 2007 at 02:02:50 PM PDT

  •  Interesting but wrong (13+ / 0-)

    In particular

    If you approve of a), you are implicitly agreeing with the principle that private citizens should contribute to the underpriviledged’s most basic needs.  You are essentially absovling the local, state or federal government of a presumed obligation to provide basic necessities for its citizens.  Is that a good idea?  Well sure, if you want the problem solved and don’t have faith in your government.  You are essentially making an economically conservative, anti-government decision.

    is incorrect.

    When you give to a charity that helps the disadvantaged, you are not absolving anyone of anything; rather, you are dealing with the reality that the government does not do enough to help solve the problems.  NO government has EVER done enough.

    What giving to the charity of your choice means, I think, is that you think you are a better judge of who is in need than the government is.  And, I gotta say, I think that that is true, not just in this administration, but in all of them.

    Republicans believe government is the enemy. When they're in charge, they're right

    by plf515 on Mon Mar 19, 2007 at 02:09:39 PM PDT

    •  But why doesn't it do enough? (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      dadanation

      And for every disadvantaged person you see, how many others are suffering outside of an altruist's view?

      There's certainly nothing fundamentally wrong with helping someone in need privately, but by then the government has already failed them.

      As for making better choices than Government, well, some people choose not to contribute at all.  The Government can (or should) at least make sure everyone contributes.

      Seek first and final principles at The Mean Free Path.

      by Cream Puff on Mon Mar 19, 2007 at 02:29:20 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  It's not a choice between either and or. (6+ / 0-)

        The government is taking in more than enough money in taxes to properly care for everyone in need.  It chooses not to.  Our doing the same would not change things at all.  Eliminating charitable giving and making sure everyone pays taxes are two distinctly different issues, with virtually not overlap between them.  So please don't confuse them.

      •  I certainly agree that (6+ / 0-)

        the government has a role to play, and that the role it plays is too small, not just now (in the Bush admin) but always has been.

        But no government has ever done the job fully.  The current admin does worse than many....

        Republicans believe government is the enemy. When they're in charge, they're right

        by plf515 on Mon Mar 19, 2007 at 02:58:53 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  Well sure. (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          plf515

          But if the definition of "fully" only applies to basic needs such as food, clothing and shelter (to which I would add basic healthcare and education), many western governments do pretty well.

          I do not want the Bush administration to destroy the faith in Government as a basic provider.  If we start to reach into our own pockets to mitigate local misery, we are vindicating the supply-side conservatives and letting the greedy off the hook.

          Seek first and final principles at The Mean Free Path.

          by Cream Puff on Mon Mar 19, 2007 at 08:09:36 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  Fully, to me, means (0+ / 0-)

            more than the basic necessities; and, of course, I agree that many countries have done better than the USA, especially now.  And, equally obviously, I want Bush out.

            But meanwhile, people are suffering.  I am not in favor of sacrificing them to the altar of any principle.

            Republicans believe government is the enemy. When they're in charge, they're right

            by plf515 on Tue Mar 20, 2007 at 03:43:14 AM PDT

            [ Parent ]

      •  Charities provide a lead (3+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        ohwilleke, dadanation, Catte Nappe

        A charity has the option of helping just a few people, and trying new ways to do so. Microlending. Gently used office wear. Community gardens.

        Government does not have the ability to do those kinds of pilot programs. They have the responsibility to look after all their constituents the same, for the most part.

        The current system allows governments to take the best ideas working in charities and to apply them to the programs we all agree are needed.

        Fry, don't be a hero! It's not covered by our health plan!

        by elfling on Mon Mar 19, 2007 at 03:50:17 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  Your three examples (0+ / 0-)

          I would not consider basic charities.  Microlending can actually be profitable, and even if it weren't, why couldn't the government do it?  Used clothes can be given to the poor because we're not sacrificing other economic opportunity to do it.  As for community gardens, they don't happen on valuable real estate without government bylaws.

          Seek first and final principles at The Mean Free Path.

          by Cream Puff on Mon Mar 19, 2007 at 07:56:49 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

  •  If you want to talk short sighted, it's (6+ / 0-)

    this kind of take on charitable giving that is short sighted.  And smacks of shallow thinking on the issue.
    Contrary to your statement that having government fund all charity means freedom of choice - excuse me, but I quite definitely do not choose to have my monies spent by Bush on religious programs as is currently being done.  My freedom of choice comes through my personal selection of which charities I desire my dollars to go to.  
    What this kind of thinking would lead to is quite simply making charity solely a political issue.  Even charities would have to toe the political line of whoever is in power in order to survive.  Thanks but no thanks.  I'd rather be a part of the system that is out there constantly having to beg for funds in order to continue services rather than having to answer to the government in order to get funds.
    Yes, government has an obligation to care for those in need.  But when it isn't doing that, and I personally step in to help them, I am NOT condoning the government not fulfilling its responsibility.  I am caring about fellow human beings.
    If you choose not to give charitably, fine.  Don't do it.  But to make these bizzare arguments against others doing it in order to justify your own decision simply makes no sense whatever.

    •  I could not agree more (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      dadanation, sunshineonthebay

      well said.

    •  Your monies are being spent (0+ / 0-)

      on those religious programs whether you give to charity or not.  Meanwhile, a billionaire gives a part of his tax break to the Cato institute, which in turn publishes misleading studies showing that government doesn't work and that private charities work better.

      Had a few thousand more generous souls spent money on getting a better government elected rather than mitigating the damage done by this one, we would be immeasurably better off.

      Your giving to charity or not does nothing to justify my decision one way or the other.  I admire all those who feel compelled to any charity, even the ones I don't approve of.  I'm simply suggesting there's a better way to contribute to the greater good.

      Seek first and final principles at The Mean Free Path.

      by Cream Puff on Mon Mar 19, 2007 at 07:24:46 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  I say Government (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    ohwilleke

    Look at the diamonds and $1000 suits on your preacher and most charities end up only giving 10 cents or less on each dollar collected. And when you are a good American you want to take care of America and Americans; and that includes all American. F@#$@k the Republicans. Sorry I misspelled fucking

    Exodus 23: 2 "Do not join a crowd that intends to do evil.

    by roxnev on Mon Mar 19, 2007 at 02:37:36 PM PDT

    •  If you have an opinion, it might (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Catte Nappe, plf515

      make sense to take the time to make it a little more clearly.  What does the percentage of how much charitable giving getting to the intended recipients have to do with anything here?  And how does it support one position or another?  
      I don't know too many preachers myself who wear $1000 suits - some of the TV evangelists and larger churches perhaps.  But not most.  And anyone interested in charitable giving can research and discover how their dollars are spent - their reports and tax returns are public records.  So each person gets to make that choice themselves, rather than having someone like Bush decide who is deserving.

      •  on percentages (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Ahianne, plf515

        roxnev doesn't do a good job of making what could potentially be a good point.  While I have personally never met a preacher who lived a pimp lifestyle, I do pay special attention to percentages when I give to charity.  For example, I wouldn't go to charity event that spend $45 out of $50 spent on each entrance ticket on the party itself.  In fact, I find that distasteful.  I prefer charities that aren't simply fronts for tax-deductable partying for the rich.
        The same goes for organizations.  I want to know what percentage of revenues actually go towards charitable causes versus overhead of operating costs.

        •  and you have the opportunity to do that (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          plf515, gustynpip

          with private charities. It's all public information. You can choose to give, or not give based on those numbers.

          If only our taxes and government spending were the same. How much money do you think the government would get if we could evaluate how it spent our money? I would guess not much. But then again, we don't have a choice, so we get a government that is wasteful and inefficient.

          Thank you, but I'll give to charities...of my choice.

          •  yup (0+ / 0-)

            I'd like to know, for example, why my home state of California cannot be bothered to teach kids how to read, write, or do math, for example.

            •  That's a point for another diary, but (0+ / 0-)

              part of it has to do with the fact that your state government is not in charge of educating the children. The teachers unions are.

              It has the responsibility to, but no longer the power it needs to do it.

            •  A bit over the top (0+ / 0-)

              My experience is that CA schools do fine with kids who come to school ready to learn, but struggle with kids who don't. Problem is that the second category keeps growing.

              Fry, don't be a hero! It's not covered by our health plan!

              by elfling on Mon Mar 19, 2007 at 03:47:02 PM PDT

              [ Parent ]

          •  Your username (0+ / 0-)

            certainly clarifies your philosophy.  It goes with being resigned to government being wasteful and inefficient.  I simply don't agree in terms of serving the people's basic needs.  Government can do it when it is made up of competent and committed people.  People we must help get elected.  That's how I choose to spend my spare change.

            Seek first and final principles at The Mean Free Path.

            by Cream Puff on Mon Mar 19, 2007 at 07:34:04 PM PDT

            [ Parent ]

        •  well, yes of course (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Catte Nappe, wondering if

          and I agree.

          But many charities have minimal overhead.

          here is one site that evaluates charities

          Republicans believe government is the enemy. When they're in charge, they're right

          by plf515 on Mon Mar 19, 2007 at 03:26:23 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

        •  I agree completely that there is a lot (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Catte Nappe

          of room for abuse with charities.  And unfortunately there are those who will abuse the system - or are simply incompetent.  And I also try to be very careful with where I give.  But I'm not going to refuse to give at all because it might be misused or not go where I intend.  I figure if some gets sidelined, at least I've tried.  I know I spend money on clothes I end up not wearing much and on household goods that it turns out I don't really like.  I throw food away that spoils because we don't eat it in time.  Waste is, unfortunately a fact of life, and I consciously accept that there will be some amount of waste in charities, too.
          And then there's the issue of what you consider being used for it's intended purpose.  I'm involved in our local animal shelter, and I know people often accuse us of not spending the money we raise "on the animals".  It's like if it's not spent on food or bedding or something, we're wasting it.  But we have people who fill and clean litterboxes, scour rooms, administer medications, train dogs, fill out paperwork - and they have to be paid to do all that.  I volunteer my time, but you can't run something like that strictly on voluteer time.  We also have utilities, building maintenance, etc to pay.  Etc., etc.  Yet lots of people donate food or toys because they then know it's the animals who will receive it.  
          Because I know how hard it is to raise funds because of my experience with the shelter, I'm particularly bothered with this attitude of making excuses to avoid accepting any personal responsibility to share good fortune.

            •  I'm not pointing fingers at (0+ / 0-)

              anyone with that comment.  It's just the general sense I get when I read the diaries or comments claiming that those who give to charities are somehow to blame for the government not taking care of the needy, that they are coming up with justifications for not being willing to do anything.  I figure it's all a personal decision, and I haven't quite figured out why it's a subject written about as frequently as it is here.  

              •  giving to charity is rarely a bad thing (0+ / 0-)

                Nothing wrong with helping people out.  It's more effective of course when you're giving to someone you know, or know of, because then 100% of the money spent is going to the right place, otherwise there are plenty of reputable organizations out there.

    •  And I suppose (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      plf515, wondering if

      you would rather give your "charitable contributions" to the government so they could spend it on the war in Iraq?

      Jeez

      •  the dream of the ideal government (0+ / 0-)

        that would only do what we want.

        Do need to separate a bad instance of government from how a more typical instance could hypothetically  do things. Having said that, it's very true that the US has spent a higher percentage of its income on the military than most countries.

        BTW - glad to see you're still here reading and commenting.

        •  The ideal government is (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Catte Nappe

          in the zoo, next to the dragons and unicorns.

          And I do appreciate you're glad I'm still here, although I would say you're in the minority. But thanks nonetheless!

          Just got back from holiday so have been gone for awhile. Nice to get back into the swing of things. It just doesn't seem right if I haven't been troll rated lately...

          •  lol (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            Cream Puff

            It just doesn't seem right if I haven't been troll rated lately

            I've got friends like that, I'm even a bit like that myself.  I suspect there's a bit of similarity in other ways, I'm a bit wary of big anything.

            Oh, and there have been unicorns in circuses - goats with their horn buds transplanted. So maybe we can find not ideal but pretty damn good government.

  •  Not correct. (3+ / 0-)

    a) give it to the United Way;

    b) give it to a beggar on the street;

    c) give it to a local after-school program (sports, computers, science, etc.);

    d) help sponsor your work collegue’s kid’s hockey trip to France;

    e) overpay your taxes.

    I would definitely rank giving money to a beggar on the street well above sending someone's collegue on a hockey trip to France.  I'd probably give to the United Way before after school programs.

    And, overpaying taxes is something quite different than raising money by raising taxes on an equitable basis.  

    The premise of the original post, and its reasoning are deeply flawed and misunderstands liberalism.  It is a sad caracature of liberalism.

    "Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities" -- Voltaire

    by ohwilleke on Mon Mar 19, 2007 at 03:54:42 PM PDT

    •  OK, I swore I'd never write this, (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      dadanation

      but you are missing the point of the diary.

      Of course the beggar likely needs the money more.  The difference is, getting him food and shelter is a public responsibility, whereas the hockey trip is not.  A Government can build and fund homeless shelters, or drug clinics, or a jobs program.  Your few dollars will last the beggar a day, if that.

      You make a fair point about overpaying taxes, it would be best to make tax rates equitable.  But at least overpaying taxes will go to helping the many in a well-run government (I certainly am not overpaying them now).

      Look, I never attempted to define a concept as complicated as liberalism, but your dismissive toss-off gains you little respect.  I've attempted to explain my position.  If you'd like to elaborate on why it's a "caricature", I'm all ears.

      Seek first and final principles at The Mean Free Path.

      by Cream Puff on Mon Mar 19, 2007 at 07:50:03 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Liberals don't limit charity to things that are (0+ / 0-)

        public responsibilities and shouldn't.

        Liberals are people who give a shit about those who are getting screwed in our system and do what it takes, by any means, to make it happen.

        I get your point perfectly well and it is perverse.  It is the sort of intellectual masturbation that conservatives try to pass off as "compasionate conservatism" or "tough love."  Charity isn't about creating incentives for government (indeed, most government action comes after intense charity fails to solve a problem, not after charities back off).  Charity is about meeting urgent needs that aren't currently getting met.

        "Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities" -- Voltaire

        by ohwilleke on Tue Mar 20, 2007 at 09:57:25 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  Great, more dismissive labeling (0+ / 0-)

          now with bizarre sexual metaphors.  I respond because your post does offer substance, but please cut that out.

          I'm not advocating "tough love", where you purposely cause discomfort in order to encourage a certain behavior.  "Compassionate conservatism" is an oxymoron that doesn't mean anything.  I want the poor and suffering to get the care and support they need just as much as anyone who gives to charity.

          Government action comes, in a democracy, when enough voters demand it. Unlike charities, it can assemble resources from all parties, not just kind-hearted ones.  Of coures charities alleviate suffering where government has failed.  I'm saying that the priority should be in making government better, not ensuri

          In small isolated communities, government and collective charity are essentially the same thing (in terms of collective welfare), because everyone is aware of others' needs.  We have things like income taxes to offset the effects of human nature being less concerned about needs we don't immediately perceive.

          Meeting an urgent need by giving to charity is great, but the urgent need will likely recurr and require greater resources to solve.  You can make recurring contributions, but then you are putting a disproportionate financial burden on yourself.

          Seek first and final principles at The Mean Free Path.

          by Cream Puff on Wed Mar 21, 2007 at 08:28:15 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

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