Charity versus taxation over time

Volunteer sign with vintage American flagWe missed this NY Times piece when it came out in April but it’s definitely worth a read. Author Benjamin Soskis walks through the history of the debate about the respective values of contributions through charity and contributions through taxation. For several decades it was debated whether, for example, praising individuals for funding advances in scientific research undermined support for collective, public efforts. Alas, that debate no longer seems relevant as Americans are not particularly willing to open their wallets regardless of whether it’s the government or a charity calling. The author has some interesting (to say the least) suggestions for restoring positive feelings about our tax contributions, including instituting “tax choice” – an option to add a percentage on top of your income tax bill. Soskis ends with this reflection on the words of President Woodrow Wilson:

“There is something very fine, my fellow citizens, in the spirit of the volunteer, but deeper than the volunteer spirit is the spirit of obligation,” Woodrow Wilson announced at the inauguration of the draft, in June of 1917. Does that rhetoric still resonate today, when so little is asked of us, collectively, as citizens? Considering those words anew might not transform us into cheerful taxpayers—our 1040s and 1099s may be too much of a pain to ever bring us joy—but it might restore “a proper sense of proportion” to the moral significance of what those forms represent.

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