Among the many lies, fantasies, and distortions promoted by the right wing and so-called "libertarians" in this country is the idea that social welfare programs can and should be replaced by private charity.
This is demonstrably false. Today we're going to not only prove it so with numbers, but we're going to look at the inherent flaws involved in this idea.
First and foremost we have to take a look at the numbers. If this assertion is accurate, then we should expect to see that in years when tax revenue constitutes a higher percentage of gross domestic product, charitable donations will fall; conversely, when taxes go down, charitable donations should go up.
Except that's not what happens.
The two tables on this page were generated from IRS information from 1984-2008 regarding income tax collected and charitable donations claimed as deductions. (There are some anomalies in the data; for some reason the year 1988 is not represented at all in the federal reports, you can look at the data yourself in an Excel spreadsheet here.)
Even with the missing year of data, the trend is still quite clear: in 22 years period, only six times did taxation and charitable giving move in opposite directions...and in only three years did that opposition show increased charitable giving in tandem with decreased taxation.
This is precisely the opposite trend that one should expect if the assertions made by small-government types regarding the effect of taxation on charitable giving were accurate.
The numbers themselves aren't the only flaw involved in this empty theorizing, however. There are also human realities.
The government is forbidden by law to discriminate on the basis of race, religion, sexual orientation, or physical handicap in determining eligibility for social welfare benefits.
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Private charities are not restricted in that way. They can pick and choose who gets their money. You don't believe in our god? We can turn you away. You don't have the right skin color? We can turn you away. You don't have the same sexual values we do? We can turn you away.
Yes, there are some charities who don't engage in this sort of discrimination...but who's to stop them? Can't be the government; under this laissez-faire philosophy the government doesn't have the power to regulate private institutions.
I don't know about you, but I rather dislike the idea that a human being's survival could be based on whether they worship the "right" god or have sex the "right" way.
"Should" versus "Is"
Another fatal flaw in this "let private charity handle it" philosophy is that it's based on a bad premise - the idea that people will tend to do what's in the best interests of the broader society even when that runs counter to their own immediate interests.
There are some cultures in which this happens. There are some people who will give even when they have little or nothing to give. I try to be one of those people, and I've been the beneficiary of others who think the same way.
But the reality is that in many cultures, including the US, the far more common attitude is "why should I have to pay for their failure?" There are countries - the Nordic nations are good examples of this - where it is inherently understood that when one member of a society fails, the entire society has failed as well. Unfortunately, that's not a point of evolution that most of us have reached...and the ugly truth is that even if we did, it's unlikely that we would voluntarily provide for the needy at the level required to sustain them, let alone to offer them an opportunity to become self-sustaining.
You might say "well that's just not true!" You might say that because you'd prefer to think of yourself and your friends as charitable and giving. Maybe you even actually are. But take a look at how our social welfare is structured in this country. Single mom with a child. It costs $550 a month to pay rent, plus utilities, plus hopefully the ability to acquire tools like technology, transportation, and education that allow her to move out of poverty.
The sane approach would be to make sure she's got what she needs...but what happens? One side says "this is what she needs, let's give it to her." The other side says "you're not going to steal my money!" So they compromise...and she gets $300 a month, which isn't enough to cover her expenses, and then the "steal my money" crowd looks down their nose at her because she can't pay her rent.
That is the ugly reality of how people deal with each other in this country. When we evolve past that point, one could argue, then the problem will solve itself.
But the truth is, the problem would solve itself through taxation and centrally-administered distribution of necessary goods and services, because that's the only efficient, cost-effective way to do it.
But then of course, you have those right-wing social Darwinists who do their best to break social welfare systems and make them ineffective, bloated, inefficient, and costly...and then they point to the artificial effects they've created as an excuse to eliminate those systems altogether.
This kind of thinking is a bit like punching your girlfriend in the face and then refusing to go out with her because the black eye makes her look ugly. Perhaps when sanity overtakes this psychopathic way of thinking, we can revisit this issue...but as things stand today, private charity can not, and will not, compensate for the destruction of state-administered social welfare systems.