Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Democratic Philanthropy

Joel Berg, Executive Director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, raised a very legitimate question in a comment to my previous post on Free Market Versus Legislative Philanthropy.* He asked the question that all complainers should be asked, “Do you have a better alternative?”

Before I answer that question, I should clarify that I agree with Mr. Berg’s proposal of taxing the wealthy more equitably and allowing society as a whole to determine how excess wealth should be spent. Getting this excess wealth into government coffers would likely address the concerns raised in my Jan 29th post in that it is highly likely our troops would become properly equipped, most likely children would actually be taught in public schools, and probable that WIC and food stamps would continue and be streamlined. I feel Mr. Berg’s solution would adequately address all of those most deserving causes, which are not sufficiently funded presently. And maybe that is the best we can do. As they say, “Our democracy isn't a perfect system of government, it's just better than the alternatives.”

My concern lies in allowing the legislative process to determine how excess wealth should be spent. I have little fear that the legislative process would fail its worthy citizens in need. But the measure of a society is not in how it treats its most worthy citizens, but how it treats its least worthy. **

I do fear that the legislative process would fail to support less popular causes: rights of the accused, rights of prisoners, rights of sex offenders, rights of Islamic fundamentalists, rights of drug addicts, rights of sex workers, rights of people I didn't think of and lots of people don't think of either.

So after much contemplation here’s my proposal: MORE democracy rather than less would result in better use of wealth. Tax the rich more like Berg suggests, but also make the populace's control more direct. With the ubiquity of the internet, federal spending referenda are potentially practical now, and using voting intelligently (for example, by allocating funds proportional to voting percentage, rather than "winner takes all") might achieve spending with more variety and more equity of interest than filtering through political representation.

Of course, the people least served by government are those who don't take part in it, for example felons, non-citizens, and the ever increasing group of people who by law or by logistics are prevented from voting in government elections. Without a vote, the legislature has no self-interest in catering to them. Serving the interests of those who don't/can't vote is always a dilemma, and moving toward an Internet poll-driven democracy won't change that. But the internet has proved its worth at uniting disparate people with common interests, so the voice of those who speak for the unpopular and internet voiceless might be able to be heard better through a web poll than in the halls of Congress.

The Combined Federal Campaign might be a model for this, both for its strengths (in 2004, contributions were $256 million) and weaknesses (charities have to qualify for inclusion).

A cynic (for argument’s sake let’s call him Bob) might say no matter how you try to tie the government's hands, once the money is "theirs", it's up to Congress to discipline itself. If their inability to keep their hands off Social Security is any indication, we’re in trouble. Just transferring personal wealth of the rich into the generic government coffer that's subject to political whims is heavy-handed (though straightforward). What if the taxpayer is given a few options of charitable funds where a large chunk of his taxes will go? This sidesteps Congress (after they pass such a law) and gives the wealthy some discretion (if they have to pay, they might as well decide who'd best spend the money). This need not be equivalent to charitable donations. These funds could be private foundations that act as supercharities, like the United Way, or Hands On Atlanta, with the mandate to move the money on to charities covering broad swathes of causes. Of course in theory the legislature is held more accountable to us than privately run charities, but in practice that seems not to be borne out.

Again, while you ponder a better alternative to my alternative, please play Free Rice.

* Can I just completely geek out for a moment about how totally awesome it is that Joel Berg commented on my post? And how thoughtfully he did so? Thank you, Mr. Berg, or the super awesome intern at NYCCAH charged with responding in his stead. Either way, you totally made my day. (back)

** This is an aphorism that is not original to me, but I cannot find its source. For many years I credited it to Fyodor Dostoyevsky, but perhaps I should have been crediting the high school English class in which we read The Brothers Karamazov. To the best of my knowledge it is the confluence of the following. As Home Secretary in 1910, Winston Churchill observed that: “The mood and temper of the public in regard to the treatment of crime and criminals is one of the most unfailing tests of the civilization of any country.” Elkin, W., The English Penal System. London: Penguin (1957), at 277. Dostoevsky wrote that: “A society which looks upon such things [as the harsh punishment of its citizen] with an indifferent eye is already infected to the marrow…” Dostoevsky, F., The House of the Dead. London: Dent (1962), at 194. Cf. Coppedge v. United States, 369 U.S. 438, 449 (1962): “The methods we employ in the enforcement of our criminal law have aptly been called the measures by which the quality of our civilization may be judged.” (back)

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