The Naive Morality of Demanding Taxes Over Charity

We shouldn't rush to fund organizations that hurt people.

Imagine a charity called Homeless Helpers, their purpose stated right in the name. They run food banks, fund shelters, offer mental health counseling, and many other programs that improve the lives of the unhoused. Your friends have suggested you make a large donation to them out of the money you just received from a lucky lottery ticket. In fact, your friends do more than suggest. They strongly imply that, if you actually care about helping those worse off than you, it would be morally wrong not to give to Homeless Helpers.

You agree and are about to cut a check, but decide maybe it’s worth doing a little research. Just some due diligence, because it’s an awfully big check you’re getting ready to drop in the mail. Poking around on the Homeless Helpers website, you find a lot of press releases about their accomplishments, and a lot of videos with leadership and employees talking about how great the organization is and how many homeless people it’s helped. You also find plenty of stories in major newspapers praising the charity. It all seems quite good.

Then a friend sends you a link to an article from an independent outlet reporting on a whistleblower who’s come forward with evidence that 10% of Homeless Helpers’ annual budget funds a little discussed team that directs violence against the homeless. It rounds them up, locks them in cages, frequently beats them, gives money to foreign governments with records of human rights abuses against them, and broadly takes actions that the virtuous among us find abhorrent.

This is all pretty unsettling. Because even if 90% of that big check you’re about to send will go to actually helping the homeless, 10% will go to the team of abusers. What’s more, that team wields considerable influence within the organization, and so there’s little interest in reform.

Should you still cut the check? If you don’t, will you be acting wrongly by depriving homeless people of the help and support 90% of it would bring?

If your friends insist you should still give to Homeless Helpers, they might justify it like this: Only 10% of the budget goes to hurting people, while the vast majority is helpful, and not just in a marginal way, but in ways that can turn around, or outright save, people’s lives. Every dollar you don’t give deprives someone of help. But the 10% spent on harm is still concerning, so in addition to giving, you should use the influence your donation brings to convince Homeless Helpers to give up its violent activities. You should press it to reform, even while supporting the good it does.

What should we make of this argument? My intuition is that we should reject it. If 10% of the organization is inflicting violence on the helpless, we should not support that organization until it stops. By giving it money now, we’re telling that while we might handwring about the terrible acts it perpetuates, we’re willing to overlook them. And we’re denying funds to other organizations out there helping in meaningful ways, but without this evil taint.

So your friends are wrong. The moral act isn’t to give your surplus funds to Homeless Helpers while also demanding reform, it’s to give to a charity that doesn’t hurt people.

I’ve set out this thought experiment because a lot of people get mad when the rich give to charity. Their argument is that if the wealthy have surplus money, they should pay it in taxes so the government can use it to help people.

My argument is that this belief depends upon a Pollyannaish view of government, the benefits of its programs, the scope of its actions, and the efficiency by which it carries them out. The government pays for bombs used to kill innocents. It pays the salaries of corrupt and violent cops. It pays for prisons and prison guards who hold non-violent people in cages. It pays for the enforcement of “Don’t Say Gay” bills, gives money to regimes with extensive records of human rights abuses, spies on activists, terrorizes minorities, oppresses the marginalized and underprivileged, and in many, many ways perpetuates evils. All funded by our tax dollars.

My argument is not that all charitable giving is worthy of praise. It can be self-aggrandizing, the funds directed towards buying status instead of helping those who most need help. Nor am I claiming that we must withhold all our tax dollars from the government. Destabilizing such a vast organization, upon which so many rely, would bring its own harms, and they’d likely be considerable.

To believe that all charitable giving by the wealthy is less supportive of the public good and less public-spirited than paying taxes is clearly wrong. Raising taxes doesn’t not necessarily entail more good things, and it’s likely to mean more money for the bad things the government is already doing. 

When looking at the morality of giving, we have to approach the question skillfully, and that means on a case-by-case basis. Ideologically motivated blanked claims about the moral worth of taxes versus charity are good for tribal signaling, and their good for expressing displeasure about our tribe’s out-groups, but they obfuscate the most important metric for assessing how to use surplus funds intended to help those in need: whether the organizations funded actually help.

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