Do taxes equal charity?

Ummmmmm, no.  Apparently, Mitt Romney and some Cato types seem to think so (via the Post):

Are taxes a form of charitable donation?

Republican presidential challenger Mitt Romney seemed to suggest that he might think so last week, when he responded to questions about how much he pays in taxes by suggesting that people should take into account his total contributions to the government and charities…

But experts who research public attitudes on philanthropy on both sides of the political spectrum said it was an inadvertently revealing moment, a brief window into the deep philosophical differences between how liberals and conservatives view government and society.

“Taxes are a form a of charity,” said Michael Tanner, a scholar at the Cato Institute who has studied philanthropy, explaining the conservative viewpoint. “If we think of the point of taxes, it’s not to be punitive. We tax people because there’s some use, some public good, for which they’re needed.”

He added that one reason a conservative such as Romney aims to push tax rates down is a fundamental belief that individuals make better choices about what society needs than government does: “A conservative might say, ‘I know of something in my local community where my dollars might serve a better purpose.’ ”

Okay, just because the money goes towards a public good doesn’t make it “charity.”  This really seems to be stretching the definition of “charity” to me.  Second, in lots of cases, individuals do make better decisions than government.  But in lots of cases they do not.  Heck, for one, just read anything on behavioral economics to realize how amazingly irrational individual economic decisions can be.  Furthermore, there’s all kind of things that people genuinely think the government should do, but pretty much never give their own money for it.  How many give to charities to help may for emergency medical care for indigents, or to help care for extremely mentally ill, or the mentally disabled, or pre-K programs for at risk kids.  Pretty much none of these things would be funded if we left it up to charity, but all but they Cato and Ayn Rand types understand that these are all good things for a society.  From the article:

The flip side of the argument, the liberal side, is that the point of government is to provide a way for citizens to decide together what society needs and to get those things done.

“This is really the fundamental disagreement,” said Garrett Gruener, the founder of, who advocates higher taxes for himself and other ultra-wealthy individuals as part of the group Patriotic Millionaires for Fiscal Strength.

“Democracy is not a charity. It’s an enterprise of all Americans to accomplish things that we democratically decide are important,” he said. “Charity is something I do on my own, and I don’t expect others to have the same priorities I do.”

I feel pretty confident that the Cato/Randian utopia is pretty much a dystopia where life is nasty, brutish, and short.  The truth is that taxes represent citizens coming together to provide for a common good, thereby making life better for all.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

4 Responses to Do taxes equal charity?

  1. itchy says:

    To me, paying taxes is like paying dues to an exclusive country club, the United States of America Club. As dues-paying members, we each get a vote in how the money is spent, but, in the end, the board decides on the specifics.

    If several golfers want an automatic coffee maker on hole 10 and I don’t drink coffee, I don’t call it charity when they get their way. It’s a concession.

    I might have lots of complaints about the expenditures of the club. I might feel like others are taking advantage, or that money is being wasted. I’m not going to get my way all the time; that’s the cost of cooperation. And, in the end, I’m paying to be a member; I’m not paying out of the goodness of my heart.

  2. As far as my knowledge is concerned charity helps you to get rebate in taxes and its very helpful for the people in need.

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