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.