We are a commune of inquiring, skeptical, politically centrist, capitalist, anglophile, traditionalist New England Yankee humans, humanoids, and animals with many interests beyond and above politics. Each of us has had a high-school education (or GED), but all had ADD so didn't pay attention very well, especially the dogs. Each one of us does "try my best to be just like I am," and none of us enjoys working for others, including for Maggie, from whom we receive neither a nickel nor a dime. Freedom from nags, cranks, government, do-gooders, control-freaks and idiots is all that we ask for.
The saying, “charity begins at home”, gets at many issues at the heart of most learned discussions of the charitable deduction from income tax, but also raises a core issue that is too often missed. The income tax is not about charity and should not be given equivalency to charity, and even if many government programs are charitable individual choices to either give charity or not is preferable in most cases and should not be discouraged or dictated by government.
Charity should not begin, or end, wherever government says so. Government should begin or end wherever citizens say so. There's room between but to place government above private choice and enterprise is to misplace priorities and public good and benefits.
The US Senate Finance Committee just held hearings about the charitable deduction that mirrored the arguments that have been raised since the inception of the deduction with the federal income tax during World War I. The questions revolve, and revolve and revolve, around should there be a deduction or other scheme, how much should be allowed, by whom, to which type of organization. Reading a brief history of hearings on the deduction, there is an underlying premise that all of income is subject to government priorities.
I won’t argue for the most selfish interpretation of “charity begins at home”, that all of one’s means should be kept within one’s walls. The Jewish conception of what in English is called charity, tzedakah, makes it a high personal obligation, and unlike the frequently cited 10% the Jewish Testament calls for more as can be afforded. Christians and others of good faith or morality think similarly and give similarly.
On the other hand (as any good Talmudic discussion goes) “charity begins at home” also raises that it is voluntary and one should not abuse one’s personal responsibilities. In other words, the fruits of one’s inheritance or labor are primarily one’s own to decide their use. On the other hand, again, in the social contract we enter into for the personal benefits of being part of a larger order, government, we accept that we are taxed for the general good. In a democracy, cumulatively we choose how much that tax may be and on what. Of course, that is not perfect as there are differing ideas of how much and on what. But, public engagement and elections are available to weigh in.
Throughout the years of government debates on the charitable deduction the incentive has been on raising government revenues, with differing theories of who should pay how much and the relative efficiencies of the schemes and their effects on differing types of recipients being the details.
No one denies, all should abhor, that there are many recipient organizations that abuse the laws and donors’ good intentions to profit insiders and not the public good. That calls for increased enforcement through public exposure, investigations and criminal prosecution. But, on the other hand, that still leaves many recipient organizations allowed by the tax code to commit other abuses of common understandings of charity, such as being mostly political or their proceeds benefiting other than the needy poor. After much outrage and years of mulling this, I still have to come down on the side of the argument that says our money is ours and that there is inadequate justification for giving it instead to government that too often does the same as non-charity charities, not to mention profiting politicians, revolving-door or job-protecting bureaucrats, and government cronies.
Washington, D.C. is the country’s wealthiest area, richer than Silicon Valley. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid says “government jobs must take priority over private-sector jobs.” There are Republican and Democrat feeders at the government trough and who are profiting from crony capitalism. There is less to show from all their taxpayer expense than they would want us to believe. There is more to show in general public good from entrepreneurs, productive businesses, steering progress through private choices of what is needed or desirable.
When I have this discussion with liberals, they tend to believe that government is merely a more efficient way of doing charity, that government speaks for society, or in some sense is society. This deep equivalence of government and society manifests in other revealing statements - the Not In Our Name petitions, the declarations that "I don't want to live in a society that..." the threats to move to Canada or NZ if X happens or Y is elected, or the desire for a president that "looks right, talks right" in representing us to other nations. This envisioning of the concepts of government as the Dad (or Mom) of society that tells us where to go is rather chilling.
I don't want to paint this as an either-or. I have heard conservatives speak similarly, and there are certainly people to the left of me who can make a clear distinction that society and government are not two side of the same American coin. But the tendency to see government as the primary expression of the people is quite pronounced on the left. I find people who cannot even understand what distinction I am attempting to make, let alone decide whether they agree with it. Or worse, thinking they understand and then making the same mistake minutes later.
This is particularly pernicious with discussions of charity. I won't say that lobbying government as a way of doing charity (or even justice) is the opposite of the Christian teaching, but it's close. It's about 150 degrees opposite. That Jesus (and Peter, Paul, John) does not take this approach is not a mere technical distinction because of the limitations of his era. There were theories on the shelf and groups in the street at the time who taught this, and he didn't ally with them. He mostly opposed them.
I am tempted to go into a long discussion about the similarities and differences with Torah-Talmud teachings on charity and justice, but I think that tangent could get pretty involved.
I will recommend Jonathan Sack's fascinating 1985 article Wealth and Poverty: A Jewish Analysis over at the Social Affairs Unit.
In the past 80 or so years, governments have tried to eliminate all the intermediary institutions that stand between them and the individual. We can call this the totalitarian tendency.
When the government becomes the be-all and end-all of life, it tends to replace the church/synagogue/temple. This tendency to replace these other institutions also leads to a kind of worship of the government. As a result, people begin to think that it is OK for personally-directed charity to be replaced by government charity, such as extensive welfare programs, food stamps, etc. As we now see by looking at those populations that receive the most "charity" through government programs, this tendency leads not only to dependency, but to a slow collapse of morality and ethics in the populations receiving the government "charity." This depressing aspect alone should be enough of an argument to advocate against government control over charity.
Also, forced charity through taxes is not charity in practice and ends up depriving individuals of the opportunity to learn to be charitable as a personal characteristic. So this aspect of government "charity" also demeans individuals.