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October 22, 2007

Charity vs. Social Policy

I'm pretty sure Megan's just being snotty here when she says that "[liberals have] internalized the notion that advocating taxing other people in order to give their money to someone else is somehow morally akin to charity." That said, I often run into conservative who believe some variant of "government programs=charity, so let's just do charity," so it's worth addressing.

Charity is just not a good metaphor for how liberals think about this stuff. Charity is good for the giver and, generally, good for the receiver. But it's not what you build your society upon. It's not reliable, or predictable, or particularly targetable. Indeed, very little philanthropy actually goes into the areas that social policy focuses on. And that's because it's not supposed to. Charity, rather often, is a way to demonstrate virtue or compassion. Social policy, at least in theory, is a way to try and fix a structural problem. The two cannot be swapped in for each other.

If I thought leaving all this up to rich people would work, I'd do that. It doesn't. But liberals view government instrumentally -- unlike conservatives or libertarians, its size, in the abstract, is of no particular interest. The choice of tool isn't a question of morality. Conservatives who think social policy is just an inefficient way to get the warm n' fuzzies they remember from that 1997 donation to LiveAid are shedding much light as to how they think about charity, but not much as to how liberals think about social policy.

October 22, 2007 | Permalink

Comments

Dude, Live Aid was in 1985.

Posted by: Herschel | Oct 22, 2007 4:36:02 PM

advocating taxing other people

This is pernicious. Liberals of course include themselves among those eligible to be taxed -- unlike, say, neoconservatives who genuinely do prefer making other people pay the costs of the government policies they advocate.

Posted by: Ryan | Oct 22, 2007 4:36:04 PM

Taxes are the membership fee you pay for living in a society that helps you acquire and retain wealth. It's not so much charity as an insurance policy against pitchforks and torches. If that sounds like a shakedown to snots like Megan, then tough. It's about time that the wealthy had a tangible reminder of why they ought to buy off the redistributive instincts of the poor.

Posted by: pseudonymous in nc | Oct 22, 2007 4:46:31 PM

If charity were the solution, then sometime over the last 6000 years of civilization, charity would have solved that particular problem, and we would not now be having this conversation about implementing a government program to take care of it.

Charity seems to very effectively support cultural/ethnic communities, including language programs and cultural festivals for various immigrant communitiies. Furthermore, we do not find any structural problems caused when charity alone is unable to effectively keep these cultural groups alive. Therefore, liberals generally take no interest in "expanding government" in this case because charities are perfectly capable of supporting these institutions, and when charity fails, it does not create any national problems that the government has any interest in fixing.

There are plenty of examples we can come up with in which "charity" (that is, private, voluntary donations) is so successful that only the most self-interested policymaker would advocate an infusion of government money to support these institutions. It is only in situations where charity cannot make a significant dent in the overall problem that liberals call for a large scale, government-supported solution.

Posted by: Tyro | Oct 22, 2007 4:51:42 PM

On the conservatives and charity idea, I'm reminded of what Ariana Huffington had to say:

"One of the definite changes in my thinking was born of the hard reality I confronted when I discovered how much easier it was raising money for the opera and fashionable museums than for at-risk children. So I came to recognize that the task of overcoming poverty will not be achieved without the raw power of government appropriations."

I have a longer quote on the same topic somewhere on my blog, but I don't have time to find it right now.

Posted by: david | Oct 22, 2007 4:56:49 PM

Conservatives who think social policy is just an inefficient way to get the warm n' fuzzies they remember from that 1997 donation to LiveAid are shedding much light as to how they think about charity, but not much as to how liberals think about social policy.

The people who donate money via a rock concert are most likely liberals... which means your example says a lot about what liberals think constitutes charity. Conservatives think of charity as things like giving at church, when the church then goes and runs a food bank, or a shelter, or something like that. They're not wrong. They're not even doing a bad thing. But you're right - that food bank or soup kitchen in the church basement doesn't substitute for a social policy. I think there is, though, a tension between the way the right thinks that some services can be delivered by good-hearted volunteers and the left feels these services would be better served by dedicated professionals. There's probably, really, some sort of compromise that entails doing both, but only when we can see the value in each. And I would add, as a paranthetical aside, that all of this underlines the wretched way we deal with the arts - while everyone is debating how best to feed the homeless, no one seems willing to spend the kind of government money or wealthy charitable donation needed to fund the arts (in all their depth and breadth) well enough in this country. As an example, when Altria splits up its tobacco business into mostly Phillip Morris International, all of Phillip Morris' arts contributions will stop. That's major money, and there seems to be no one to replace it. But even liberals seem to think that this need for money is handled well by private donations, and it's not.

Posted by: weboy | Oct 22, 2007 5:01:38 PM

I'm not being snotty, and that's a particularly unfair edit, since what I said was not "liberals have" but "we've already internalised . . . "

When someone characterizes a Republican or libertarian as "selfish" for opposing high taxes and social spending, they are committing the fallacy I've named. That's not the only reason that people support social policy, nor is machismo the only reason that people support war. But Democrats/progressives do, manifestly, more than occasionally claim the mantle of generosity for themselves and their ideas, when of course advocating taxing a rich class you aren't a member of is not generosity--nor is it selfishness when Julian or Will or I advocate lowering taxes on a group we don't belong to. We may be right or wrong on some other metric, but we are not deficient in virtue.

Posted by: Megan McArdle | Oct 22, 2007 5:09:36 PM

The odd thing is that some of the "what about charity" types claim to be religious conservatives ... it's odd, because in the Biblical world-view (the Hebrew Bible, at least), there really isn't much of a notion of "charity".

The closest one comes is "tzedekah", which is used by many of us Jewish types today to refer to charity, but that's not what "tzedekah" actually means. It actually means justice or righteousness. The idea is that wealth redistribution -- and social justice in general -- is a necessary part of justice. Indeed, in the theocracy of ancient Israel, ideally certain "gifts" in the sacrificial system, where really state mandated forms of wealth redistribution (you had to give certain tithes to the poor ... it wasn't a case of voluntary charity ... you had to let the poor glean your fields, etc.).

From a secular point of view, I'd say having to pay some redistributive taxes is a lot less of an imposition on liberty than the government requiring me to let poor people glean my crops, wouldn't y'all agree?

Posted by: DAS | Oct 22, 2007 5:14:59 PM

Do you really think that was an unfair edit? I can happily change it back to "we've," but since you don't think what you were saying there, it seemed clear you were talking about some other group, and I assumed it was people who supported tax raises, i.e, liberals. I'm happy to change it to some other word that denotes the group you're talking about.

Posted by: Ezra | Oct 22, 2007 5:22:08 PM

After all, we've already internalized the notion that advocating taxing other people in order to give their money to someone else is somehow morally akin to charity.

That is an insult to the moral status of taxation.

Posted by: George Tenet Fangirl | Oct 22, 2007 5:26:37 PM

To respond to Megan and to clarify on her points: What Megan and I believe the vast majority of regressives/libertarians (same thing.) really would like to say if they could say it in a vacuum with no political repercussions is that they really don't want to pay any taxes at all. They us the derivative of "charitable giving" as a euphemism that gives a patina to there anti-socialism. What these people won't tell you is that they believe that it should be totally up to them to decide what percentage of "their" income they should be able to give to any cause that may address social ills or imbalances, and to what frequency. What they conveniently ignore or dismiss is the fact that nothing human operates in a vacuum and that "their" income is dependant upon the road that they drive on.Paid for by us all. The electrical grid set up by us all in it's infancy.The police that work to protect us all. And increasingly, the internet that was funded by us all in it's infancy.No Megan, logic belies your artful cum sophistic presentation, and those of your regressive ilk. And your unwillingness to face up to your ignorance to the fact that progressives want to address the inequality in opprotunity through the implementation of a fair tax system speaks to that.

Posted by: onlinesavant | Oct 22, 2007 5:41:24 PM

Well said, Megan. I would also add that Ezra seems to ignore the possibility that government interventions have crowded out private charity in the areas under review. His case might be stronger if organizations like the Red Cross and Hull House didn't predate government intervention.

Posted by: Fox | Oct 22, 2007 6:09:29 PM

Ezra seems to ignore the possibility that government interventions have crowded out private charity in the areas under review.

Yes, don't you see? Rich people were just about to give all their money to charity, right before the damn government swooped in and took it from them.


His case might be stronger if organizations like the Red Cross and Hull House didn't predate government intervention.

No, I think it's quite the opposite. Obviously such organizations didn't take care of the problem, did they?

Posted by: Jason C. | Oct 22, 2007 6:25:14 PM

I would also add that Ezra seems to ignore the possibility that government interventions have crowded out private charity in the areas under review.

Government intervention has never crowded out private charity, but has always been a response to a need because of private charity - especially religious organizations - dropping the ball.

Furthermore, government prgrams aren't actually solving all the problems in the world, and given the amount of money spent by Americans on things like video games and clothes for their pets, ISTM that we still have plenty of need and adequate resources for people who want to participate in charitable work. Whatever the tax "burden" may be, there's obviously a lot of disposable income being spent on non-essentials. Let's see these wonderful charities address the needs not covered by government programs first, and then perhaps liberals like me might be interested in scaling back government intervention.

I won't be holding my breath.

Posted by: Stephen | Oct 22, 2007 6:27:53 PM

"""But it's not what you build your society upon. It's not reliable, or predictable, or particularly targetable"""

Of course you don't, you build your programs on poor smokers who you also spent tax money on trying to get them to quit. Yeah that makes so much more sense..

I would think if you look back at the building of our society over the past 300 years, it was in fact charity that helped build the society and not federal social programs.

In fact, people depending on a remote, uncaring federal bureuacrat was exactly what tore apart so many communities.

Of course the biggest difference between charity and federal programs is that the charities incentives are to actually lift people out of their current problems and give them a hand up. To get communities to work together to solve their problems, neighbor helping neighbor. Where as the federal programs are designed to get people pepetually dependent on the government and makes them not rely on each other, but rely on a promise by a politician to get re-elected..

So far the great federal programs have torn apart the black family, housed people in terrible conditions in government housing which had to be torn down all over the coutry as a terrible idea, and made millions of senior citizens beggars of the federal overseers, 'oh, please don't cut my social secuity, I'll have to eat dog food'. Yeah, way to lift people up.
Its even going to be more fun when you have to tell those 75 million seniors that you lied to them their whole lives and that big nest egg you've been saving up for them by confiscating it from their pay is going to be cut, cut, cut. That you were actually running a unworkable pyramid scheme that's about to come crashing down.

Posted by: Patton | Oct 22, 2007 6:30:23 PM

shorter Patton:

OMG! SOCIAL SECURITY IS A PYRAMID SCHEME BY THE ONE-WORLD NAZI JEW BANKERS FROM BENEATH THE HOLLOW EARTH TO ENSLAVE HUMANITY! ALSO, TIMECUBE!

Posted by: rageahol | Oct 22, 2007 6:34:49 PM

Jason, are you suggesting that the government has solved the problem, or that it is at least dealing with it so much more effectively that it can offset the deadweight losses associated with the taxes necessary to fund its operations?

Stephen, perhaps I'm misinterpreting you, but are you saying that no one should spend any money on video games or novelty items until the "essential" needs of every person have been met? If so, how do you define "essential?"

Posted by: Fox | Oct 22, 2007 6:38:15 PM

"""One of the definite changes in my thinking was born of the hard reality I confronted when I discovered how much easier it was raising money for the opera and fashionable museums than for at-risk children."""
Arianna Huff

Ohhh, why we must set up a huge federal program, Arianna found it to be too hard, she must have broke a nail or something. Maybe she was asking the wrong people..or is she saying the Kohls, Kerry's,
Kennedy's, Harmans, Corzines, Rockefellers, etc. all turned her down.

Posted by: Patton | Oct 22, 2007 6:38:54 PM

rageahol,

Sure you think its was such a great idea. But it use to be alot of senior citizens moved back in with their children, which also fixed alot of social problems, including reducing aeveryone's carbon footprint.

I guess we can thank the left for giving us 50 Million senior citizens, building their own houses, running their air conditioning, using power, water, etc. etc.
Ahh, love that global warming....

Posted by: Patton | Oct 22, 2007 6:48:02 PM

Someone who sez: we are not deficient in virtue. probably is, or doesn't know what it means, or both.

I'd sure like to know which things in 'the social commons' conservatives/libertarians think don't belong there - since we know some of them but not all. We can be pretty sure that individual health care, public health, public schools, postal service are on their 'out list'. Highways, fire depts, conducting elections, regulating workplace hazards, preserving the environment, administering the justice system, and insuring food and drug safety seem like they ought to be on their outlist, but they keep pretty mum about those.

How about a trade: progressives will support a military that is only paid by those who wish to pay for it, if libertarians and conservatives agree to admit healthcare to the list of public commons paid for by all through taxes. They can send their non-tax-deductible contributions direct to Blackwater.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Oct 22, 2007 6:56:39 PM

I'll agree to no government programs like, oh, let's say socialized medicine (since we're always being told it can only be a disaster, never mind that every other developed nation in the world provides it to its citizens and can boast, among other things, lower infant mortality and obesity rates for their trouble) when the wingnuts agree to do away with the Socialized Military Industrial Complex.

(Which offer, by the way, is akin to my saying I won't buy that pair of Italian stilettos if you get rid of your Bugatti.)

Posted by: litbrit | Oct 22, 2007 7:14:02 PM

Stephen, perhaps I'm misinterpreting you, but are you saying that no one should spend any money on video games or novelty items until the "essential" needs of every person have been met?

No. My point is that there are a bunch of needy people around and Americans with disposable income. There's opportunity and means for people to show that private charities work better than government - and plenty of evidence that government programs have neither "crowded out" private charities nor stripped people of the means to help if they so desire.

Video games and pet clothes are just examples of things that I'm pretty sure we all can agree aren't necessary and were just there to show that resources are available without making anyone forgo food for themselves or something similar.

Posted by: Stephen | Oct 22, 2007 7:36:39 PM

"""Video games and pet clothes are just examples of things that I'm pretty sure we all can agree aren't necessary ""

I bet the people who feed, house and educate their children based on developing and selling video games and pet clothes think they are necessary.

You must not have children. Because if you took away my childs video game, he is absolutely sure he will die....

Maybe we could just post armed, jack booted, government thugs at video and pet supply stores to make sure no poor people buy these unnecessary items.
A quick boot to the throat and they'll think twice about that Christmas gift for Grandmas poodle.

Posted by: Patton | Oct 22, 2007 7:57:31 PM

This is simply absurd, as most of megan's statements are. Taxes are what I voluntarily pay for a great many social services and social necessities that the market would not provide, or would not provide to me in a timely and reliable manner. I don't think of taxes as something I try to have levied on other people. Are people in this country immutably in one tax bracket and never in another? I thought we were all so economically mobile and all quite likely to end up millionaires?

And I certainly don't think of taxes as a form of "charitable giving." In fact, I don't take "charitable deductions" because charitable giving is something that is distinct from the taxes I willingly pay as a member of a civilized society.

The utter contempt people like Megan show for the thought processes of other people astounds me. But its not really surprising. megan is *projecting*. She does things for social effect so she thinks the rest of us do too. She votes for war because she is afraid someone will call her a sissy, and she opposes taxes because she doesn't want to pay them. I, on the other hand, oppose war because I think its wrong, and I vote for taxes because I expect to pay them. I don't give a damn what anyone else thinks about what I do politically--certainly it would never occur to me to look for approval for my "charitable actions" from perfect strangers. So it would never occur to me that my ordinary political choices would be made with an eye to pleasing or impressing others. The whole of megan's perspective is based on this basic phoniness. She does nothing without wanting a return, nothing without wanting social approval. That really isn't true for the mature adults elsewhere in our society.

aimai

Posted by: aimai | Oct 22, 2007 8:00:48 PM

Why on earth does anyone spend the time to talk about what Megan McArdle says? The observation that "we" think that taxation of other people is "morally akin to charity" is not meant seriously and not intended to be taken seriously. Who thinks this? Who ever said it? Why bother with her?

Posted by: bloix | Oct 22, 2007 8:25:19 PM

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