Giving and Keeping

Sunday, October 26, 2008
First Aired: 
Sunday, July 27, 2008

What Is It

How should people allocate their assets – however modest or grand – ethically and effectively?  What kinds of giving should the government encourage through tax incentives and other measures?  Is providing for loved ones more worthy than self-expression through philanthropy?  John and Ken are joined by Rob Reich, Associate Professor of Political Science and Ethics in Society at Stanford University, for a program recorded before a live audience at the Classic Residence by Hyatt in Palo Alto, CA.

Listening Notes

John and Ken debate the ethics of charity.  How do we balance our obligations to those close to us, and our responsibility to the world's many needy strangers?  The Palo Alto school district gets flourishes off of local donations, and the Oakland school district, with a generally less-affluent community, suffers.  This is a very tangible example of philanthropy fostering inequality.  Noting that it is one of our government's responsibilities to ameliorate social inequalities, Ken asks whether the government should mediate or attempt to influence our giving.  John takes a Libertarian stance: his money is his to give as he sees fit.

Rob points out that John's position is quite contrary to the government's current policy.  Our government doesn't merely ignore our charity, it incentivizes it.  And it already favors some kinds of giving, (say, to a homeless shelter), as better than others, (say, to a homeless person.)  We can receive tax benefits for giving money to organizations.  In this way, the government subsidizes our giving, and some of the money it foregos, would, at least in theory, go towards ameliorating social inequalities.  But, in cases like donations to school systems, charity ends up benefiting the local community at the expense of the state or nation.  People are behaving as good citizens inside their suburb, but failing to fulfill their civic obligations as Californians and Americans.  And the government is paying for it.  If Palo Alto parents couldn't improve their children's education through direct donation, they, and all the other wealthy parents in California, would be working to reform the public school system for the entire state.

If the government is to incentivize our charity, should it use tax breaks to favor some kinds of donations over others?  Rob vouches for a number of organizations, (many of which you can access below in our "Additional Resources" section), that help people donate effectively to charities.  Rob takes the common definition of charity to be alms-giving, or giving to the needy.  John questions this definition, pointing out that giving to the Church has traditionally been considered charity, and the money that practice provided went both to feed the poor and convert the heathens, but also to fund great works of art.  He returns to his libertarian position: if the government's influence of charity is such a problem, why not eliminate that role entirely?

But we are reminded of how radical a change this would be when the subject of political giving arises.  Caps on politial contributions are an example of the government actually restricting our giving, which is what John was afraid of.  But such a policy seems like a very good idea, because while someone seems to have a right to use his money as he sees fit, he doesn't have a right to infringe on the rights of others.  To use your money to back a candidate is to amplify your political significance and, conversely, diminish everyone else's.  And estate taxes seem like a more controversial, but also very real way by which the government restricts or penalizes our giving, one that is very much in the spirit of Rob's argument.  While Rob isn't proposing we penalize giving to less-than-needy causes, he is proposing we be more conservative in incentivising it.  He points out that John's libertarian position seems like the default, and we ought to have compelling reasons if we are to deviate from it.

They conclude by a discussing a point Ken has been making throughout the show: people give for lots of reasons, both moral and immoral.  Some giving is entirely selfish: one audience member points out that political contributions could be better viewed as an attempt to purchase something, in this case an election.  Other giving is motivated by belief in a cause or an indivdual, or to fulfill a civic duty, to make a difference, to make oneself feel good.  Ken makes the point that all these motives are still there with or without governmental intervention, and he wonders just how many people would be deterred from donating if the tax incentive were eliminated.  And if we think our charity should be a virtuous, selfless act, Rob says perhaps we should worry about the tax incentive polluting our motivations.

  • Roving Philosophical Report (seek to 5:23)  Zoe Corneli interviews Burt and Didi McMurtry local philanthropists who discuss grappling the ethical issues that arise out of an excess of wealth.  They tell us how and why they've decided to leave their children what they have, and how and why they've donated to the organizations that they have.