Conservatives and Charity

by Nicholas Frankovich

Most of the media coverage of Romney’s 2011 tax returns has revolved around the percentage he paid in federal taxes. That number is 14.1 and would have been as low as 10.4 had he deducted the full amount of his charitable giving. Isolated, those two figures support the Warren Buffet rhetoric about tax rates: Why should they be lower for the super rich than for their secretaries?

But Romney gave 29 percent of his income to charity and, hence, 43 percent to charity and taxes combined. And, of course, many liberals object to that conflation of the two forms of disbursement. Charity, as they see it, is a nice garnish, or maybe dessert, but no substitute for taxes, the meat and potatoes of our state-sponsored great society, which all of us have a moral obligation to support, each according to his ability.

Taxes, though, are no substitute for supporting your church, your alma mater, the local JCC, Meals on Wheels, or what have you. Mediating institutions that provide social services (as well as intangibles, including the experience of belonging) would grow and, you would think, reduce the need for government entitlements if taxpayers had more after-tax income to invest in privately sponsored safety nets and other social goods that they believed in.

Taxes and charity serve some important common purposes and should be complementary. You’ll think that charity should be subordinated to taxes only if you believe that the state should be the primary provider of social goods. If you believe it should be the provider of last resort, you’ll want to lower taxes so that the people most likely to give will have more to give. Arthur Brooks wrote the book on conservatives and charity: Who Really Cares.