Our Funders Ourselves, continued: Charity and Social Change

Commenter Fred Friedman is right, of course, when he says that charities can and do make social change.  Just to split hairs, though, what I said was that charity, singular, doesn’t–by which I meant that individual donors shouldn’t have an inflated notion of what they’re accomplishing by writing a check.  I didn’t express (or formulate) my thought as rigorously as I should have: it was really a plea for donors to have realistic expectations of the organizations they support.  If you give money to a group whose aim is to end poverty, you have a right to make sure they’re taking reasonable steps toward doing so.  You don’t really have a right to ask them the following year why they haven’t ended poverty yet, or to withhold continuing support on that basis. 

But the question of the relation between charity and the political process is an even more tangled one, as Professor R. George Wright of Indiana University points out.  "I’m frankly a big fan of something like a federal estate tax, for egalitarian reasons that would seem obvious.  Have you yet posted anyone’s thoughts on these sorts of gargantuan charitable foundation gifts as opposed to paying what’s now widely referred to as a death tax?"  No, but I’ll post my own now.

I have four objections to claims that private philanthropy makes the estate tax unnecessary or counter-productive.   

  • As a practical matter, private charity cannot feed, house, clothe and educate all the people who need all those things.  Even if people tithed their income, that is, gave 10%, they would produce less revenue than they pay in income taxes alone (see Facts About Taxes on the Web); and most people actually donate less than 5%.
  • In a democratic society, private individuals shouldn’t decide what’s important for all of us–no matter how public-spirited their opinions and decisions.  Thanks to Andrew Carnegie for founding libraries, but it’s the job of municipal governments to maintain them.  It’s great that Bill Gates wants to eradicate malaria, but it’s the job of the US Congress to pay UN dues to get that done.
  • It’s possible, though far from certain, that the estate tax encourages people to give away their money since the government’s going to take so much of it eventually.
  • The estate tax is essential to prevent creation of an hereditary aristocracy, and it’s obviously too small rather than too big or we wouldn’t have the Bush family handing off political power from generation to generation like a piece of old silver.  Nor is this solely the belief of the contemporary Left: Thomas Jefferson fought for the abolition of entail and primogeniture because he wanted family estates to be broken up rather than consolidated.  All those right-wingers who claim the mantle of the Founders should remember that when they’re prating about the "death tax."
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