Compulsory philanthropy stunts true charity

Published in the Daily Camera.  [Scan of print edition.]

How could anyone possibly vote against Referendum 1A, the “Worthy Cause Tax”? Referendum 1A would extend an existing 0.05-percent sales tax for Boulder County nonprofit human service agencies, and these charities’ undoubtedly promote worthy causes?

But if you are tolerant of other people’s values and causes they want to support, a “no” vote is the only option. This referendum is not about whether you, a single voter, want to give “a penny for a worthy cause.” It’s about whether you want to force, through power of law, your neighbors to support a particular set of charities instead of their own favorite charities.

While supporters of the referendum truly want to support what they consider worthy causes, their ends do not justify their means. In effect, the sales tax will make it a crime for people not to donate to certain charities. There is no benevolence or compassion in forcing people to support another’s worthy cause. Instead, it’s arrogant and intolerant.

Some claim that without government support, these nonprofits could not operate. But governments do not create wealth and give it to charities; rather, they are coercive middlemen between taxpayers and charities. This argument for compulsory charity insults both nonprofits and their benefactors, as it claims that people would not donate voluntarily. It implies that either those charities are not truly “worthy causes,” or that Boulder residents are too cold-hearted and uncaring to support them.

Boulder is known for its socially responsible citizens who seek to solve local and global problems by donating time and money to a variety of nonprofit organizations — each of them “a worthy cause” to those involved. But by seeking tax dollars, Referendum 1A supporters are implicitly saying that their causes are “more worthy” than others, and government should force people to support them.

According to GuideStar, a national database of nonprofit organizations, there are more than 300 human service charities within a 25-mile radius of Boulder. Yet, according to the referendum’s official Web site, “your penny,” and your neighbors’, will directly benefit only 11 politically connected nonprofits — some of which already receive state and federal tax dollars. And what of hundreds of other nonprofits not among the chosen few? “Nonprofit agencies not earmarked for funds already” can bid for it. That is, the government forcibly takes money from these charities and their donors, and who then have to beg for it back.

Tax-funded charities, the nonprofit equivalent of corporate welfare, have become special-interest lobbyists seeking government plunder. Instead of peacefully coexisting by seeking voluntary donations from diverse segments of the community, charities seek tax revenue at each other’s expense. It’s the law of the jungle: Kill or be killed. In the end, voluntary charities suffer, as documented by historian David Beito, author of “From Mutual Aid to the Welfare State.”

Most Boulder residents rightly oppose government policies such as tax breaks, special licenses, tariffs and subsidies that benefit specific companies. Known as “big business,” it gives politically connected companies an unfair advantage over their competitors. These “corporate fat cats” can be sluggish and inefficient, but still profitable, and drive some competitors out of business.

Referendum 1A is similar; it benefits “big charity.” Government “charities” such as welfare programs and schools have a guaranteed source of revenue: taxes. We have no legal choice but to fund these charities, regardless of how worthy they are compared to other nonprofits. Hence, despite the noblest intentions, government “big charities,” like government-created monopolies, have little incentive to be efficient or innovative.

Consider Philanthropic Research, Inc., itself a nonprofit organization. With its GuideStar database of nonprofits, it “envisions the evolution of an increasingly efficient nonprofit marketplace where donors seek out and compare charities, monitor their performances, and give with greater confidence; nonprofit organizations pursue more effective operating practices, embrace greater accountability, and enjoy lower fund-raising costs; and society benefits from a more efficient, generous and well-targeted allocation of resources to the nonprofit sector.”

Compulsory charity thwarts all of these goals while the bloated and unaccountable big charities thrive.

This is the tragedy of compulsory charity: It kills compassion and voluntary giving. People stop taking responsibility for improving their world by investing time or money in efficient and effective charities (or other ventures) that tackle problems most important to them. Instead, government “frees us” of this responsibility, and all but the most conscientious people assume that any social problem is not their problem — as “government is taking care of it” with other people’s money.

One might argue that an elitist cabal cannot simply impose this tax; a majority of voters must approve. Yet if it’s wrong for a minority to deny choice to the majority, how can it be ethical for a unified majority to deny choices to a minority of individuals who think differently? Democracy should not be an end in itself; that’s mob rule. Let it be a means to an end — political freedom, a prerequisite for a tolerant, civic-minded, benevolent community.

Your neighbor’s penny is not yours to donate. Choose your own worthy cause, and vote “no” on 1A.

Brian T. Schwartz is a doctoral candidate in electrical engineering at the University of Colorado, where he is also active with the Campus Libertarians.

Copyright 2004, The Daily Camera. All Rights Reserved.

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