Sunday, March 23, 2008

Free Market Versus Legislative Philanthropy

Joel Berg, Executive Director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger wrote an excellent letter in response to the New York Times Magazine's March 9th issue, which was, in Mr. Berg's words, "dedicated to a discussion of how the wealthiest Americans can best have an impact on philanthropy." I must confess that between SXSW and the vortex of recycling I have not yet read said issue. But, as you may recall, I have been pondering issues of philanthropy as previously expressed in my post on Charitable Giving and Your Tax Rebate.

Mr. Berg sums up my underlying concerns eloquently.

Is the nation’s reliance on voluntary, uncoordinated charity — provided by people who may benefit from massive tax cuts — the best way to solve pressing social problems?
Modern American society seems to accept as a given that the wealthiest should have unfettered free choice to spend their billions on vacation homes, multimillion-dollar bequests to their pets or donations to charities, including well-funded medical, cultural and educational institutions.

I agree with his concerns, but I'm not totally sold on his proffered solution.
In contrast, most Western European nations tax the wealthy far more equitably, and their societies as a whole, through their democratically elected representatives, determine how excess wealth should be spent. Such countries have stronger social safety nets and less homelessness and poverty than America.

What of the tyranny of the majority? Would the same democratically elected legislators who pass ever-escalating mandatory minimum sentences and Orwellian punishments for sex offenders also vote to fund indigent defense funds for the objects of their "tough on crime" policies? Or would they add earmarks, like funding homeless shelters but only if they do not house ex-cons?

Again, while you ponder the answers to these questions, please play Free Rice.

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NYCCAH said...

Thanks for your comments. I agree that our elected officals often spend our tax dollars on bad things. But they also fund roads, health research, parks, etc. Plus it is our job as citizens to get our elected offcials to support our priorities -- or to vote for new elected offcials. Do you have a better alternative?

-- Joel Berg