Occupy a Charity! Or wait, what?

I started this blog post back in October, so it’s probably time to unearth it from my drafts and actually post it. Onwards!

Back in the fall of the year last year, during the Occupy movements, one of memes that was circulating the internet was of people saying “I am wealthy– tax me more!” I, being the cynical person that I am, wondered aloud why these people didn’t give the money they thought should be taken in taxes to charities, if they really cared so deeply.

Then I thought about that more, and it actually seemed an excellent idea. If you think you should be taxed at a higher rate, or if you feel that the government is falling down on the job on a certain issue– give a bunch of money to a charity! That way you actually know where the money goes, and you don’t have to wait for tax reform to roll around, a process that might take five or more years.

Side note: I am not advocating for high-income persons paying taxes at a lower rate than middle-income people. That is absurd. I’m thinking about the possibilities inherent in making 200k or more a year, which is the benchmark for the Canadian 1%.

At any rate, I was so taken with my idea that I mentioned it to someone else who was taking an interest in the Occupy movement. His reaction was first to accuse me of conservatism, and then when I requested an answer to why this idea I’d just come up with would be bad, he responded.

“Well it doesn’t work to just have people give money to charities, because then it gives people free rein to be bigots with their money.”

Now I found that to be a fascinating response, primarily because of all the assumptions it contains. The first one is that it presumes that the government is free of prejudice and/or bigotry. Is that true? On the one hand, no, because no choice can be free of a value statement. Every decision is prejudiced one way or another. But semantics aside, is our government free of prejudice?

I have been thinking about this, and I don’t believe that simply because the government is the government it is imbued with some quasi-mystical protection against awfulness. The record of history is that governments make mistakes, and usually when they make mistakes they make horrible ones. They also do good things, but it is far from a 100% skew in favour of infallible government. Yes, our governments are committed to justice and equality. In Canada we have the Charter of Rights and Freedoms which the government is committed to upholding. But so is every other institution– and  by law. If I want to go around discriminating against people on the basis of age, class, race, gender, marital status, sexual orientation, etc, I am prohibited by law from doing so. I could be working for the government or the local corner store, it makes no difference. So there’s that.

And the second presumption which that statement contented is that it’s the government’s role to stop bigotry. And that also, I think, is incorrect.

Please don’t stone me.

I don’t mean that the govt should be advocating or turning a blind eye to bigotry. Our duly elected officials, as representatives of the people, should be fighting grossness and injustice, protecting the powerless and disenfranchised, and helping those who need it. But that’s just it, as representatives of the people. Change shouldn’t come only from the government, it should come from the people, with “official” channels being only one of the channels which change travels.

So yes, it is government’s role to stop bigotry and grossness. But it is also EVERYONE ELSE’S role to stop it. If we rely on legislation as the only path to change things, I think we make a mistake. Social change usually comes in small increments, on the community and household level, after all.

So that is how a simple statement about charity and taxes opened up a whole can of worms in my head about the role of government and re-established in my own head that legislation is not the end-all-and-be-all of society. Feel free to point out my mistakes and mental flaws in the comments. 😀

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2 thoughts on “Occupy a Charity! Or wait, what?

  1. Well, firstly, I’d wager that the millionaires in question already *do* give money to charity, if they are holding up those signs, so it isn’t really an either-or proposition.

    Secondly, a government and a charity are fundamentally different things. In this context, a government’s job is to take money and redistribute it into works that benefit the most people, and the people who need it most. Governments do not always do this well, but it is at least their job, and in a democracy they are at least somewhat accountable for it. A charity’s job is usually to take money and spend it on one particular thing. They are sometimes good at this, and sometimes bad, but it is far outside the realm of deciding a national budget.

    Thirdly, government bureaucracies are often more efficient than NGOs. It’s crazy but it’s true! A charity doesn’t know in advance how much money it will have to spend, so it is hard to plan. For various reasons, a dollar the government throws directly at something tends to go a lot farther than that thrown by an NGO. So you get better value. (Of course, I’m conveniently not addressing governments working through NGOs or private companies, which is a whole other kettlebucket of wormfish).

    (warning: reductio ad absurdum ahead!)
    The fact is that if tomorrow, in your country or mine, people took all the money they would otherwise pay in tax and instead gave it to the charity, there’s a good chance our societies would deflate like a failed soufflé. Cool charities with good marketing schemes or sexy causes would make a killing, but at the expense of boring stuff that is nonetheless necessary. Probably more cute animals would be saved, which I am okay with, but quite possibly transport, roads, education and basic infrastructure would all fail to various degrees due to lack of funds.

    I am also guessing (charitably lol) that this is what your friend may have been referring to with the “bigotry”. Bigotry by omission, rather than direct discrimination.

    Ok, the above scenario is unlikely, but you only have to look to the USA to see something in that direction. The total sum of private donations in the USA are the highest in the world per capita.- 1.67%, more than twice what Canada or Australia (who come in at #s 3 and 4 respectively) give*. The US has a strong history and culture of philanthropy. They also have a fraught relationship between their state and federal tax systems, and a low tax rate. And all the charity in the world isn’t going to fix their education system, their economy, or their ludicrous excuse for a health system. And it isn’t even trying to fix anyone’s transport issues.

    Err, in conclusion (because I appear to have accidentally written an essay): Charities are great, a lot of the time! I wouldn’t want to discourage anyone from giving. But with some structural problems, problems of the type that a government can actually solve if the people put enough pressure on them to do so, charities can really only act as band-aids.

    *this is actually 2006 data, because I am too lazy to find better http://www.cafonline.org/pdf/International%20Comparisons%20of%20Charitable%20Giving.pdf

    • Now THAT makes more sense. Especially the shiny-cause vs. road building thing. And no, I’m not saying that I wish everything was turned over to charities. I am very happy having roads taken care of. And health care. And the Army. And public education. And I am quite content to have Arts funding run by both the private sector and the govt. I just like a MIX of fundings, I guess.

      My baseline discomfort with monopolies applies to both Government funding and Other Stuff. I think having one or the other run everything is not ideal.

      P.S. Thanks for commenting. 😀

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