Charity and Government
It is fundamental to the view of big-government advocates and outright statists that the role of government is to run the society. Not just those aspects (like policing) that require legitimate use of force or (like foreign affairs) that require a unified social face to present to outside entities or (like roads and infrastructure) that empower citizens to compete with each other to the economic benefit of all, but everything. The notion is that a centralized bureaucratic brain can discern the problems of the nation and resolve them.
Of course, conservatives see that premise as insidious and sinister and don’t see the creeping, relentless means by which government expands as indicative of a reasoned effort to implement intelligible plans so much as a sly strategy for aggregating power for its own sake. John Miller offered an example in a recent essay about governments’ overtures to regulating (and taxing) private charity:
The fight is finished in Florida, at least for now. But the war over government control of philanthropies is set to break out in other state capitals as well as in Washington, D.C. As politicians seek to close budget gaps, many are turning their gaze to high-income givers and foundation endowments — and wondering how they can plunder the wealth that allows Americans to give more than $300 billion annually to support everything from churches to cancer research. President Obama has proposed slashing the charitable deduction for the richest Americans. So far, Congress has resisted. Yet some of its members would like to go even further than the White House. California Democrat Xavier Becerra, who sits on the House Ways and Means Committee, has referred to the tax-favored treatment of charitable donations as a “$32 billion earmark” because that’s the amount of revenue Washington supposedly forgoes each year. Becerra wants Congress to play a stronger role in overseeing philanthropy: “I have an obligation to make sure that those $32 billion that would have gone to the federal government are used for a . . . public good.”
The “public good” is in the eye of the beholder, of course. Last year, Becerra embraced a rather specific vision of it when he spoke at an event sponsored by the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy. He praised the release of an NCRP report called “Criteria for Philanthropy at Its Best.” The document called on foundations to spend at least half of their grant dollars on “lower-income communities, communities of color, and other marginalized groups.” It also said grantors should spend at least a quarter of their donations on “advocacy, organizing, and civic engagement to promote equity, opportunity, and justice in our society.”
It’s a four-step trick of which Americans should beware: As illustrated in the first paragraph of the quotation, step one entails government officials asserting authority based on any thread they can find, in this case, the supposedly foregone tax revenue, as if allowing charitable organizations to keep money that others have freely given is no different than cutting a public check for the same amount. (Becerra ignores, of course, that taxing donations would translate into fewer of them.) Step two, noted in the second paragraph, sees the government implementing regulations that appeal to particular notions of charity, equality, and redistribution.
And step three leaves all pretense discarded, as at least one state government has already revealed:
Earlier this year, Arizona’s legislature snatched a $250,000 bequest from the coffers of the Arizona State Parks Board. The politicians decided that the gift of Asta Forrest, a Danish immigrant who had wanted to support a park system that she had grown to love, instead would help close a budget gap. “She never would have given the money if she had known that the state was going to take it away from the parks board,” a friend told the Arizona Republic.
And then, when the government has killed private charity by (1) taxing it and (2) scuttling donors’ confidence that their money will actually support the cause that interests them, the argument will become — you guessed it — that the government must pick up the slack through more taxation and government “oversight.”