Should redistributionists feel compelled to give more of their own money away?

What a juvenile argument!  I cited this riposte when I was in high school.  Nonetheless, looking back on it, I think it might be right.  Here is a version from Steve Landsburg, and a while ago Steve Moore wrote it up in the WSJ.  After all, if government action to redistribute income is morally required, in the meantime is not greater private charity morally required too?

There are plenty of redistributionist goals which do not require concerted collective action or threshold levels of contribution.  One person’s giving can make a big difference, especially if that person is wealthy.  You don’t have to be Bill Gates.  I’ve seen estimates that a few hundred dollars of giving can save a life (that’s from one of those OUP redistributionist philosophy books, the name of which escapes me at the moment), and while I think that is an exaggeration, surely a few thousand dollars should do the trick, less if you give wisely.  And you can do lots of good short of saving a life.

Maybe “it’s not fair” that one person should pony up now, but still the moral imperative of the giving, if sufficiently strong, might outweigh that consideration.  We are, after all, ethical pluralists.  Citing one argument against a giving obligation — “the unfairness of it all” — does not per se dismantle that obligation.  You still can do a lot of good with the gift.  And is not the obligation strong in the first place, precisely because the misery of the potential recipient is so extreme and attention-worthy?

Is it even more juvenile to mention that conservatives, on average, give more to charity than do (modern) liberals?

Karl Smith is irritated by the argument, but I don’t see that he offers a good response.  In general the responses I read or hear to this argument show a lot of emotion and not a lot of recognition of the strongest versions of the claim.  Even if this argument has a chance of truth of only 20 percent, that still should have force to alter behavior at the margin.  “There is a twenty percent chance I am morally compelled to give” is a real nudge toward “I should give more now,” if only, say, giving a fifth of what the full argument requires.  So “downgrade and dismiss” — a common rhetorical strategy — won’t work here.  If the argument has any life at all, it should hang like a millstone around the neck of egalitarians.

The best response is to accept the argument and admit one’s partial moral inferiority: “The people who give more, yes, in some important ways they are better people than I am.”

Addendum: Bryan Caplan nails it.


Some might worry about the free-loader problem. Replacing a system of compulsory redistribution (say trough taxes) with one of voluntary redistribution (trough charitable donations) rewards that fraction of the population that defects. (that is, those who are wealthy enough that they 'should' give, yet choose not to)

It's related to the tragedy of the commons. Should people who think that there should be a forced lowering of the grazing-load to a level that maximises total output, themselves voluntarily send less cows to the commons ? Perhaps they should, they would, afterall, up the total output and thus further the total wellbeing of society by doing so, thus, you could claim, as you do that doing so makes someone a better person.

But doing that *also* rewards the freeloaders, i.e. those who do -not- reduce their grazing. Rewarding damaging behaviour, is a negative since all else being equal, a bad behaviour will tend to increase if the rewards for engaging in it grows.

Oh, nonsense. We don't have free riders in a democracy.

We have compassionate conservatives.


To have free-riders you need public goods.

Name some...I'll start, defense. Not 95% of what our military and spy apparatus is doing, but actual defense. Your turn.

Your past education.

Not mostly. But good try. The vast majority of education is captured in earnings by individuals. Maybe the citizenship stuff is a public good, but that is problematic from a political standpoint. What of my preferred citizenship education would you want your kids taught?

How much are you willing to pay homeschooling parents? I guess we need taxes to pay them.

I guess the choice of "your past education" as a public good was a failure, mostly.

Don't go there Bill ;)

With as much education as I've required, I should sue the government.

Claiming the American education system as a service provided is like half-starved North Koreans being grateful for the food their government gives them -- sure, it was better than nothing, but it could have been provided much more efficiently with less gov't intervention.

At the risk of being pedantic, education is not a public good in the sense of being non-rival and non-excludable. If I take a class, that's one less spot for someone else, so it isn't non-rival. And I can refuse to act on what I've learned, so it isn't non-excludable.

There MAY be postivie externalities to education. I tend to think there are, especially at the fundamental levels. I also think there is a legitimate public role for providing basic education so children aren't entirely dependent on their parents for it. Both arguments fade for higher education, as the student both captures more of the gains and makes his own decisions. I pretty much draw the line on gut feel and convention though.

@MP As you acknowledge somewhat with your pendantry disclaimer, the distinction that you draw is an unimportant one. Consider an educated public rather than the education of a particular individual, and I believe you will find it to be non-rival and non-excludable. The beneficiaries are not the students you see. The students are the mere product that conveys the benefit to citizens at large. Common culture and minimally equipped workers are the public good; public schools are merely the means of producing those goods. Sometimes I hear people with no children complain at property taxes funding public schools. They imply that parents of children should bear that cost. They see only the benefit to the students. Your framing--positive externalities--acknowledges some benefit to society but not a general benefit; only a subsidy is justified, then, not full funding.

Actually, I see it as very important. We are building multimillion dollar school buildings. Determining what is and what isn't a public good and what is a good versus bad public good (an alien defense death ray would be a public good, and a dumb one) is important for allocating resources.

"To have free-riders you need public goods.
Name some"

A just and equal society?

equal society isn't a public good.

NameRedacted, I think Nemi means equal opportunity, not equal outcome.

Interestingly, while Milton Friedman did not call the alleviation of poverty a public good, he did say that it had "neighborhood effects" (a cousin or sibling of public good).

He wrote: "It can be argued that private charity is insufficient because the benefits from it accrue to people other than those who make the gifts - again, a neighborhood effect. I am distressed by the sight of poverty; I am
benefited by its alleviation; but I am benefited equally whether I or
someone else pays for its alleviation; the benefits of other people's
charity therefore partly accrue to me. To put it differently, we might all
of us be willing to contribute to the relief of poverty, provided everyone
else did. We might not be willing to contribute the same amount without
such assurance. In small communities, public pressure can suffice to
realize the proviso even with private charity. In the large impersonal
communities that are increasingly coming to dominate our society, it is
much more difficult for it to do so.
Suppose one accepts, as I do, this line of reasoning as justifying
governmental action to alleviate poverty; to set, as it were, a floor under
the standard of life of every person in the community. "

Actually, studies generally show conservatives give more than liberals.

Liberals probably tend to prefer coercive redistribution to voluntary partly because they believe everyone else also requires coercion, and partly because they tend to emphasize "fairness" so the idea of some other people not giving is more offensive to them than to conservatives, and partly just because they tend not to be churchgoers (churches generally can't coerce your money through threat of force like gov't does).

Don't ignore that churches & synagogues engage in no small effort to convince their members that charitable giving is desirable.

Citing the Daily Caller is probably not going to impress a lot of people. Nevertheless, even the DC story mentions that a lot of that disparity probably has to do with the greater religious affiliation of conservatives. Donations to church are classified as charity. We can argue all day about how selfless that kind of giving is - it certainly doesn't strike me as equivalent to writing a check to a food bank or to the Sierra Club. More like giving money to your kid's parochial school (which also gets counted as charity).

The Daily Caller is not the source of the claim, they just reported the study. And they're no worse than, say, the NYT.

it certainly doesn’t strike me as equivalent to writing a check to a food bank or to the Sierra Club.

I feel the same way, but I suspect for entirely different reasons.

It's just so funny how people continue to discount religious giving at 100%. You realize, if all the churches were raptured tomorrow, these people would create new churches to give money to, right?

Man, if the government came to me and said "what we are going to do, is ask you to give politely, tell you exactly how your contribution has helped, and you are free to not give if you think we are being irresponsible, or to give to a competing jurisdiction" I'd need a change of shorts.

Would they create churches like this?

Does that look like charity to you?

A church is a club. That doesn't make it a bad thing; actually, it is a good thing as it fosters communal and civic engagement. That said, to the attendee a church is about as much of a charity as is the University of Alabama's football team to a college football fan.

D -- those were generally built back when the Church could use coercion to collect taxes.

"Would they create churches like this?"

We were driving through a very small town. There was a big building. Someone said "what is that?" I said, that's the Federal Courthouse. I had know idea. I was of course correct.

We are not a democracy. We elect representatives to spend our money. We don't vote on legislation except at the local level.

If the government subsidizes bad behavior, there will be more of it.

This what irks me about Buffett. Warren, why just 'more' to a poor capital allocator? You clearly don't think that donations to the government are a high ROI for you or Bill's money. What is the coordination problem, then? No? Education for the underprivileged or re-training for the pigeon-holed? No? What then is the institution that makes sure it at least goes straight to the poor rather than knee replacements for middle-class ski bunnies? Is there at least a bridge you are trying to build? Ummm, how can I ask this delicately, that bridge doesn't happen to carry rail does it?

Completely agree. The challenge of every humanitarian capitalist is to take over social ills nows addressed by government. The macro metric of success for hunger programs should be a drop in food stamp funding.

Funding, or demand? I didn't know supply side arguments worked with charity.

The demand is based on income not on hunger.

I agree if you mean that these programs should put themselves out of business.
More shocking is the programs' "target inefficiency" -- so little of the money actually goes to help those in need. Rather it goes to swell the immense class of middle-class "helpers" who thus acquire a vested interest in perpetuating these programs, regardless of effectiveness. As someone once told Daniel Patrick Moynihan, "You know, there's a lot of money in poverty."

I think the problem is not enough private charity. It's not that private charity is inefficient. Buffett probably chooses to give privately BECAUSE it's a more efficient way of doing business. But that doesn't change the fact that in his view, more needs to be given, and if people won't give more on their own then the government should step in and help them out.

This kind of thinking led to the creation of Giving What We Can (, ironically by an Oxford-based redistributionist philosopher....

Of course the precise opposite is true in practice . Surveys show that self identified liberals give considerably less than self identifyied conservatives.

I think there's nothing juvenile about the first argument, and I think it's almost obviously true in the case of private charity.

But it is much more problematic in the case of taxes--Landsburg's focus--than private charity. With taxes, you have the worries that 1) much of your giving won't have an impact on redistribution, and 2) because of the way tax and spending policy is set, substantial numbers of people voluntarily overpaying might inhibit future tax increases or necessary spending cuts.

-- A liberalish redistributionist

I don't have worries that my taxes won't have an impact on redistribution. I feel very confident that they will. My wealth WILL be redistributed to somebody else. Like an AIG executive. Or a Congressional healthcare account.

There's an even stronger argument, I think: Consider what the Gates Foundation is accomplishing with their work in immunization. There is, I think, zero chance that if that money had been taxed away by the US it would have gone to any use even a tiny fraction as helpful to the neediest of people. More likely it would have gone to other GMs and Solyndras.
The redistributionist argument seems to have a huge "... and then a miracle occurs..." between the "government takes your money" part and the "poor receive benefits" part. With private charity it's much more likely actually to do good.

You are trading fundraising effort in collection for lobbying effort in distribution.

I think the book you're thinking of is Peter Singer's "The Life You Can Save". The "save a life for a few hundred dollars" comes from GiveWell (, a charity research site which says most charities are bunk but a few show credible evidence that they're saving lives for under $1000 a piece. These lives are in developing countries, which is not where our tax dollars are mostly going.

I'm a non-religious liberal who does believe individuals should be giving more, especially rich individuals. My husband and I aren't rich, but give 10%-50% of our income.

Do you give 10% or do you give 50% ? 12% ? Do you want me to think you give 50% ? I am curious why liberals often express the idea that people who have become wealthy are not entitled to retain their wealth. Despite the greed and evil-doing of wealthy people, they do pay per capita much more in taxes than any other group. Why don't you impose the same moral standards on the bottom 70% ?

Over the last four years (since leaving college), the percentage has varied between 10% and 50%, based on what jobs we have and whether we were in school. Is that so hard to believe?

Everybody needs a certain amount to live on. Poor people in this country are still mostly better off than the poor in other countries, so I think they should give some. But if you're rich, you have a lot more extra money after taking care of your basic needs. I'm not saying we should tax everybody down to a subsistence level. But if you're wealthy by American standards, you're obscenely wealthy by world standards. And I think the most moral choice for those individuals to make is to give generously.

I wonder if this is not fundamentally more a size-effect than a "private versus public" effect. The greater good of the Gates foundation might be in a large part because it is smaller and therefore more efficient. Are there any studies that measure the waste of private charities and is it correlated with their size too?

When has the government taken any serious measure to reduce its own size?

Immediately after ww2.

Seriously. The comments need a like button because I really like this.

Speaking for myself, my size has always been directly correlated with my waist.

Is that waist in the private or public sector? Wait, don't answer that.

Sounds like you're referring to the Underpants Gnomes from South Park:

Step 1: collect underpants
Step 2: ???
Step 3: profits!!!

This is just an argument that many or most people should give more. It doesn't directly have anything to do redistributionism, unless 'non-redistributionist' is code for heartless son of a bitch.

Anyway, one could be a heartless son of a bitch, and still be a redistributionist. You could think that the best state is one that helps its citizens flourish most, and that redistributionism would tend towards that end and you could think that, as a citizen, your obligations to charity are minimal and local.


This is one of Tyler's worst posts. The idea of redistribution as nothing but a "moral imperative" may be true for some but it is a bit of a strawman.

To some extent it's signaling, or just aspirational - what kind of city / country do I want to live in?

Perhaps I am a heartless son of a bitch, but I want to live in a place where there are no potholes in the street, where there are nicely landscaped parks (even if I never go in them), a professional ballet and symphony, no homeless people freezing to death in the streets (too messy), no illiterate children running around in rags and getting in trouble, etc.

If I wanted to live in Haiti, I'd go live in Haiti.

The idea of redistribution as nothing but a “moral imperative” may be true for some but it is a bit of a strawman.

The idea that Tyler says that is an even bigger straw man.

I read this post as giving only one possible reason for favoring redistribution: the morality of it.

What he actually believes is another matter that I can't comment on.

So how do you read the post? Please enlighten me.

Have you visited Hong Kong? North Korea?

What about people with a dark sense of humor who enjoy watching the government collapse upon itself in the midst of increasingly inane partisan bickering that mostly recycles 50 or 100-year old ideas and slogans? It seems like all the benefits accrue to them, but how can we tax them?

Religious contributions are very similar to paying to see a particularly boring movie that you pay to see sunday morning instead of saturday night. Religious charities often do very good work but the contributions to individual parishes that seem to primarily explain the delta between liberal and conservative giving are significantly allocated to perpetuating this not-entertaining entertainment.

If it's not entertaining for you, don't go. There are a lot of people who seem to get some value out of attending, though.

Fair enough, I don't begrudge them the value they receive. That said the reason statistics show conservatives are shown as more charitable than liberals is largely because these worship pageants count towards their number. Similarly, I think much of the charity that goes to support museums and orchestras are different enough from generally welfare improving charity that they should be tabulated differently or not at all. A contribution to a church or museum is more similar to a ticket to a movie than it is to a contribution to soup kitchen; of course many services for the poor are provided by religious institutions but these are typically a far smaller part of the budget of these institutions when compared with employing clergy and performing religious services.

It is a charitable donation, because it is not mandatory. It is quite easy to be a "freeloader" and not donate anything to the church, and still get the benefits. You can not attend a movie, however, without paying for a ticket.

Also, a great deal of left-wing donation would also be church donation... Churches are an extremely huge part of urban black culture, and church donations would be the majority of charitable giving for huge segments of Democratic voters.

I think you're right in saying that Michael's criticism applies equally to Democrat giving.

However, I still think Michael is basically right in saying that giving to churches shouldn't really count as charity. Not because it's just supplying a luxury good, but because of who the giving benefits. If I give a middle-class person a video-game, it's a gift, but if I give a poor person a video-game, it's charity. Giving to churches mostly benefits the kind of person doing the giving. It's like Medicare - we're just pooling our spending, because for various reasons we feel better doing it that way.

Don't confuse "charitable giving" with helping the poor (and I'm disappointed in Tyler for muddling the two). "Charitable giving" has come to mean "what can I deduct on my taxes", and includes not only donations to religious groups (some amount of which trickles down to the poor but most of which pays for a building and salaries of clergy and staff), higher ed. institutions and private K-12 schools, arts and cultural organizations and advocacy groups such as the Sierra Club.
Do you seriously think that giving $1000 to Harvard or your local professional symphony has the same effect as giving $1000 to a food bank or a battered women's shelter? It may have the same effect on your taxes and your level of feeling good about yourself, but I don't think anyone at Harvard will be cutting back on calories or lowering the thermostat because you didn't give to them.

Sure Bruce, but what percentage of your taxes get to those truly in need?

Tom, that's the problem with this whole area of discussion. If you ask the average person how much of their taxes goes to "welfare" they'll say 20% when the number is more like 4%. (The same person probably thinks we spend a huge percentage on foreign aid.)

So if only 4% of our spending is going to programs specifically for the poor, does it make sense to look there first when balancing the budget while ruling out tax increases?

> If you ask the average person how much of their taxes goes to “welfare” they’ll say 20% when the number is more like
> 4%.

You aren't counting Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security as "welfare"?

_Discretionary_spending_ is in the noise compared to redistributive entitlements.

No, this is wrong. You can not be a member in good standing of a Catholic parish if you do not tithe the stated percentage of your income, which you will need to prove. Then some of the 'charitable giving' that you paid goes to defending pedophiles and building fancy churches. I have not really heard of poor people throughout the world benefiting from regular church goer's tithing. They take up separate collections for some chosen causes.

Apologies on some of the grammar and lack of clarity in my above comment.

I understand your point about donations to churches being ambiguous and maybe they should be classified differently; perhaps then one could list what portion of income churches give to charity instead? Every church is different and there are probably some that hoard their money or spend it on frivolities, but there are many more who take a good portion of their wealth to help people! The church I attend spends a small portion of its funds on building & property upkeep, salaries and the like. The majority of it is generally spent one of two other ways: Missionary work, which is usually but not always foreign and involves helping people and teaching them about the Bible or Benevolence, which is helping meet people's physical needs right here at home, making sure the hungry are fed, supporting disaster relief efforts (both monetarily and with labor), helping people who are behind on bills and many other good works.

Just as an FYI for those curious to my background, I'd like to consider myself as part of the Christian Left, if such a thing is allowed to exist. I work hard am happy to pay my taxes as long as the gov't is responsible and efficient with my money. I try to give as I'm able; I'm hanging on to middle class. We should want to help those who aren't as well off as we are. More importantly we should want our country to prosper and for all Americans to have a fair chance at succeeding in life. If I have to cinch up my belt to make that happen I'll make that sacrifice and if an individual that makes 7-digits in a year or more importantly a company that makes more money in a quarter than I'll make in 3 lifetimes has to be forced to part with some of their profits for the benefit of the whole, well...I think I can live with that.

I think the problem is in "redistribution". Conservatives tend to be focused on spending money to solve concrete problems. Towards this end individual contributions and volunteering for charity are effective, available and rewarding means. Redistributionists, on the other hand, are focused on distribution. The problem that needs solving isn't schools or health care (they are secondary goals), it's the very fact that economic inequality exists (or, at least, is too high). Towards this end, any individual sacrifice is entirely inefficient.

It's easy to think of examples where redistribution reinforces inequality. Even demanding uniform schooling creates commodity labor. I'm concerned about stuff like that.

Exactly. It's intentions-based, not results based.

Much like our education budget.

"Is it even more juvenile to mention that conservatives, on average, give more to charity than do (modern) liberals?"

Since we are making assertions without citing evidence, I believe I have seen studies demonstrating that the poor/liberal give much more as a percentage of income/spending than rich/conservatives.

You demand evidence, then give none for your assertions.

Conservatives definitely give more to charity than Liberals:

And I am not a Conservative, but I can easily see it from my own experience.

Don't confuse charitable giving with helping the poor.

I would take this with a huge grain of salt without seeing a breakdown between giving to religious institutions, arts and cultural organizations, educational institutions, advocacy groups, versus organizations that actually try to help the poor (yes, some religious giving trickles through to the poor).

Always trust George Will to give an unbiased account of the truth. Just sayin',

If many conservatives are liberals who have been mugged by reality, Brooks, a registered independent, is, as a reviewer of his book said, a social scientist who has been mugged by data.

Yes, redistributionists probably should give more money to charity than they do. Of course, people who believe human suffering is better alleviated by private charity than public spending also should be giving more money to charity than they do. And people who believe that they have no duty to alleviate the suffering of other people should be become better people and donate more money as well.

Tyler, the problem with your proposal - and many of your posts - is the obsession with individual actions, sometimes not considering structural factors. Redistributionists urge to provide a structure that generates equality, not something dependent on individual action.

Being taxed is individual action. Redistribution is individual action. It is mostly chopping down. It's a cop out.

Things like public school that aim to build up aren't really working that well. They need to go back to the drawing board.

By your definition "going to war" is individual action.

"Redistributionists urge to provide a structure that generates equality, not something dependent on individual action."

The fatal conceit in a nutshell.

It's fatal because it's wrong. We redistributionists don't want to "generate equality" (how can I take you guys seriously when you resort to this chestnut of a strawman?), we want to generate minimum sufficiency. Think of Friedman's Negative Income Tax as something along that line.

we want to generate minimum sufficiency

Then I will ask you, what is that, and can we stop once we reach that level?

I can't give you an exact number because it's not my field; I imagine that shelter from the elements, food enough to keep one healthy, basic doctoring when required, and an education that provides literacy and numeracy should do the trick.

If that seems like a lot I'd ask if you and your family would trade places with someone who has that and nothing more.

And yes, I'd be willing to stop there.

"I imagine that shelter from the elements, food enough to keep one healthy, basic doctoring when required, and an education that provides literacy and numeracy should do the trick."

How nice. But what happens when you give a guy double the amount of money that he needs to get all these things, but he drops out of school, lives in squalor, eats poorly and foregoes healthcare, all so he can have more money for cable TV, cigarettes, scratch tickets, a cellphone and strip clubs?

I know what happens, actually: you demand that we tax the "rich" more.

@ Jim

Taxing the rich more isn't to fund the miniscule welfare program you are snarking about.

It's to pay for the federal old-age pensions and healthcare of a huge wave of aging baby boomers, as well as a large defense budget. You could argue that you don't desire to pay for those things, but that's what the budget/tax fight is really coming down to.

Huh? Why, if we supply a "basic subsistence," would we spend twice that? Dropping out before achieving the minimum education is what happens to kids -- literacy and numeracy are high school level goals -- who aren't necessarily "guys" with full rights (which includes the right to live in squalor and eat what you want). The right to healthcare doesn't mean you have to use it if you don't want to, only that it is available; if you want to die as you lived, in squalor, so be it.

If your objection is that some people make bad choices then you are sooooo right about that. So what? As I wrote before, if you think the life of your hypothetical free rider is so attractive why not agree to trade places with him. I'll help you pay for it.

Please don't respond with the "I don't my money going to..." -- we've heard that more times than we can count, and we all have our pet objections on that score -- if you believe in a social contract you'd know that you don't always get what you want.

I love that "we can't have any social programs because someone might cheat!" line of yours. Are you one of those people who, after a natural disaster, worry more about a few grifters getting undeserved compensation than about the many victims?

When the Adult Baby guy not only gets disability but actually has it affirmed after national exposure, it's hard to say it's just a little problem.

"minimum sufficiency" -- The poverty line of today is about where average incomes were in the 1950s (yes, in real dollars). Minimum sufficiency is never quite sufficient enough, which is why our gov't is heading for fiscal disaster.

> Is it even more juvenile to mention that conservatives, on average, give more to
> charity than do (modern) liberals?

Actually this is an application of Simpson's Paradox. Non religious Conservatives are the LEAST giving cohort in the USA. What you are looking at is that, by far, the strongest predictor of donations is the religious affiliation, highly correlated with being conservative. This isn't a moral push, it's the belief in an higher authority compelling you to give.

Another form of compulsory regulation.

When I haven't paid tithe, neither God nor church members have issued fines, garnished my salary, threatened to throw me in jail, or even asked questions about it.
"Compulsory", I do not think that word means what you think it means.

God levies fines in subtle ways. I'd be careful tempting fate like that.

Another predictor might well be how much money you have. And that again is a hidden variable correlated with conservatism, I suspect.

You should never take as true a statement that has not been tested and then go from their to make your argument.

For example, the argument that conservatives give more than liberals.

This is from a study quoted by George Will, and followed up in the NYT by Kristoff:

"When liberals see the data on giving, they tend to protest that conservatives look good only because they shower dollars on churches — that a fair amount of that money isn’t helping the poor, but simply constructing lavish spires.

It’s true that religion is the essential reason conservatives give more, and religious liberals are as generous as religious conservatives. Among the stingiest of the stingy are secular conservatives.

According to Google’s figures, if donations to all religious organizations are excluded, liberals give slightly more to charity than conservatives do. But Mr. Brooks says that if measuring by the percentage of income given, conservatives are more generous than liberals even to secular causes."

Here's the link:

Excluding all religious organizations seems a bit harsh. Does that exclude Habitat for Humnaity? The Salvation Army? The Red Cross? I'm not personally religious at all, but I see a lot of good being done by religious organizations, not just "constructing lavish spires."

Why on earth would you eliminate religious organizations? That's nuts. Seriously, why do you do that?

If you want to slice out building programs, and even evangelism, okay. That's not what you are doing. A lot of the church's money is used for the poor. And the church plays a role (that the government is terrible at) of vetting that the money actually gets to the poor (rather than people good at filling out government forms). Seriously, why would you just chop that off and then present yourself as the one really looking at facts?

I agree that this seems a little extreme. But then again, the largest donation I ever made in my life was to rebuild the roof of our church. While it was important for me, I have to admit that it probably did not fall into the same category as a donation to Doctors Without Borders.


I agree it is extreme to exclude all religious organizations. They do do a lot of good.

OTOH, sometimes their charity does come with a catch: e.g. some fraction of the charitable work in the third world comes with the carrot (or stick) of religious-conversion.


Not as much as you probably think, but if the destitute can get over it, why can't the ACLU types?

And our 1% of foreign aid doesn't come with carrots and sticks?

Why on earth would you eliminate religious organizations?

Because it's extremely convenient to his argument.

Well, surely you recognize that the kind of moral arguments demanding individual action alluded to by Tyler are demanding certain types of charity, right?

A great deal of religious donations go to clerical administration, religious buildings, etc. These aren't worthless, but they aren't charitable in the moral sense (just like donations to museums and NPR shouldn't count as moral charity). You would need to break out the types of giving into the proper categories.

I have never encountered a church where most of their money went to the poor. The majority of the funds spent on a church go into building maintenance and salaries. National/International denominations like United Methodists and Catholics are going to put more money helping the poor than local churches like Baptists and non-denominational groups. That's just economies of scale.
Religious charity organizations (like Salvation Army) do give a lot to the poor. I think keeping the government out of religion is a fantastic idea, but we need to not be so naive as to not realize that the majority of the charitably donated money in this country is going to the equivalent of keeping a country club or elks lodge open.

MP, how about this: we permit religious deductions in the tax code only for the amount of the deduction that is actually charity.

No one should object, should they, and it puts religious contributions on the same playing field as other charitable contributions? That way we can get rid of the spires, parsonages, sermon support, weddings, funerals, bingo parties, social nights, religious retreats, day care etc.

If that were the purpose of the deduction, that would be fine. That's not the purpose, though.

Bill, if it were up to me, I'd eliminate the charitable deduction entirely. But optimal tax code is an entirely different conversation.

Andrew', what is the purpose of the deduction as you see it if not charity? Does it somehow fall out of church/state separation? Not quite sure how to square that with your earlier comment about slicing out building programs and evangalism.

And if I donate to a museum or the local symphony orchestra, does that also not count as charity, Bill?

Yancey, You make a good point: people give to the "charity" of their local symphony (1) to pay for it and (2) to signal their wealth. I would not call a symphony a charity any more than I would call a baseball stadium a charity either.

coming in at number 9 (2005 list on Forbes)

Catholic Charities USA.

What's the religious affiliation of the red cross? I thought they were non-religious.

Really? I assumed they were nominally Christian -- thus the Red Crescent in Muslim countries -- but that could just be me being sloppy.

The general point remains valid though, that a lot of real charity is done by religious organizations, so Kristoff's adjustment doesn't really do what is claimed. (Having clicked through to the column, I see Kristoff makes the point that a lot of liberal giving is to museums, symphonies, etc. that "cater to the well-off". The whole column is actually a lot more interesting than I would have expected, given the bit Bill excerpted.)

Because you said it, the tax code is a different conversation from the one over charity versus taxation.

Claiming that the entire purpose of the deduction is because we like what people are doing with it, whether it is churches or other private charities, is moving the goal posts.

IMHO, churches are not taxed (1) because they are churches, religious freedom (2) because they are not businesses, taxing them is double taxation and (3) because people view them as charitable donations.

This does not mean I think the tax code isn't a disaster. I'd like churches to pay for the services they use just like I wish that were the case for everyone else.

That's a different question from whether people who give to churches should have 100% of that donation discounted from their personal altruism score.

Uh, not to nitpick but the Red Cross has no religious affiliation.

Is it even more juvenile to mention that conservatives, on average, give more to charity than do (modern) liberals?

Is the important moral indicator how much a person gives or what fraction of his earnings he gives?

It's how much good his money does.

Or, I should say how much good they do. Plenty of businesses do more good than handouts. Goodwill for example is better than giving clothes that people don't want or giving money they'd use to buy new stuff. You go in and pick out what you want and pay a very reasonable price for stuff that would be in a landfill or an attic.

Also as in, if your resources are being destroyed, it is your moral duty to withhold them as much as possible.

Rahul, the premise is false: if you exclude religious contributions, liberals contribute slightly more than conservatives, and under all cases, secular conservatives contribute less.

Here is the link:

I never make that argument, partly because the explanation is simple. Liberals think government is their charity. Religious conservatives think their church is their charity. Secular conservatives probably think their job/business is their charity. The question is how right is each group? My job is my charity for damn sure.

"According to Google’s figures, if donations to all religious organizations are excluded, liberals give slightly more to charity than conservatives do. But Mr. Brooks says that if measuring by the percentage of income given, conservatives are more generous than liberals even to secular causes."

"Conservatives also appear to be more generous than liberals in nonfinancial ways. People in red states are considerably more likely to volunteer for good causes, and conservatives give blood more often. If liberals and moderates gave blood as often as conservatives, Mr. Brooks said, the American blood supply would increase by 45 percent."

WTF, Regarding Blood, this is also false: see the recent article I cite later in this post on the determinants of voluntary blood donations. Think of the differences between Blue and Red states in terms of population density and commercial blood banks in urban centers.

Hmm, so urbanized centres (with more liberals) have to pay to get blood. Rural areas (with more conservatives) don't have to pay because people give it away. I think we're on the same side here, bro. The market (or lack thereof) speaks. I agree.

"Conservatives" give more blood than "Liberals".

The claim of more blood giving is based on the difference between voluntary blood giving between BLUE and RED states.

Blue states are urbanized and collect blood through pay blood banks in concentrated urban centers.
Red states serve a more rural and decentralized population.

Unless you control for the existence of commercial blood banks, urbanization/rural density, I don't think you can make the BLUE/RED distinction.

Ask yourself this question: Will you find commercial blood banks in Montana or voluntary blood banks; Will you find commercial blood banks in NYC v. Tuscaloosa Ala.


To the point of the specious difference between Blue and Red states as a proxy for conservative/liberal distinctions on blood donation, here is a recent article and abstract on voluntary blood donation which does not mention conservative/liberal Blue State Red State dichotomies as an explanation:

Determinants of Voluntary Association Participation and Volunteering: A Literature Review

David Horton Smith
Boston College and founding editor of this journal.


This article reviews the American literature in social science for the period 1975–1992 on the determinants of volunteer participation in programs and associations. It finds that most studies are too narrow in the hinds of variables that they include and that explanatory power is reduced as a result. Such participation is significantly greater for certain hinds of variables: contextual (for example, smaller community), social background (for example, higher education), personality (for example, more efficacy/internal locus of control), and attitude (for example, more group attractiveness) as well as situational variables (for example, being asked to join). Very few studies combine measures of each type of variable. When several predictor realms arc included, much higher variance is accounted for. Other social participation (political, mass media, recreational, and so on) is associated with volunteer participation. This association confirms a general activity model that posits a clustering of different types of socioculturally approved discretionary activity.

A major problem with current inequality is the incredible political power of the top 0.1% (or the top 0.01%). If some (especially those below the top 0.1%) give away wealth, it will only further concentrate power in the hands of the oligarchs.

The simple argument should be that we all have a preference order:

My own wellbeing > Poor people's wellbeing > Rich people's well being

Even though you do not want to give for yourself, there is a potential benefit of accepting to give something if other people give as well. I think this is close to the truth why (many) people like taxes more than private contributions, and the only problem is that openly saying this means you have to admit that you care more about your own welfare than poor people's wellbeing.

How strange, you fault someone for making emotional pleas regarding a moral argument. Morals are based on emotions. What next, criticize a chemist for making an argument based on the periodic table?

Morals are based on emotions.

That nicely sums the leftist worldview -- if I feel it's wrong, it must be wrong, even if that's totally irrational.

That's very convenient for you. There's no reason to listen to anyone who disagrees with you, because anyone who disagrees with you is by definition irrational.
Reasonable people can reasonably disagree.

That doesn't follow from my statement. My objection is to the substitution of emotion for reason.

And my objection to your objection is that you dismiss any honest disagreement as emotional and devoid of reason. Which is grossly arrogant.

I don't think you actually read the thread, his claim was that morals are an emotional argument. I merely noted that summed up leftism nicely.

I'm not sure everyone would agree that morals are emotionally based. I can see a particular set of moral arguments that are emotionally based, and I can see where they correlate with emotions, but I'm fairly sure there are moral frameworks based on logic, particular sets of base assumptions (religious). I'm fairly certain I could craft a nice "just so" story of morals based around evolutionary psychology.

I'm not an expert on moral arguments, but emotion is at the core of evolution. It is the algorithm that propagates DNA data. Fear, love, lust, joy etc.

But of course evolution isn't moral. Evolution is fine with rape and murder, as long as it confers a survival/propagation benefit.

Please provide a moral argument that, at its core, isn't based on an emotion.

Stealing is wrong because God says so.

Or, alternatively, stealing is wrong because a society in which people steal will be poorer than one in which people are more trustworthy.

Arguments from reason and principle, no need for emotion.

Stealing is wrong because God said so and disobeying God makes you feel bad. God will send you to hell and that makes you afraid. Argument from emotion.

Stealing is wrong because that impoverishes society and that makes you feel bad.

Both of your arguments present a moral case based on emotions, not reason and principle.

No, impoverishing society and displeasing God are not bad because they make you feel bad, they are intrinsically bad.

You can't just assign emotions to an argument and then claim they're emotionally based.

Please provide evidence that these things are intrinsically bad. So far you haven't. People follow the rules of God for fear of punishment, and fear is an emotion. You seem unwilling to engage in this line of reasoning because it would undermine your worldview and make you feel bad. Just as you describe my premise as liberal because you think liberals are bad therefore this argument is bad. It is ironic that your first critique of the idea that morals are based on feelings was a critique based on your feelings.

Your base assumptions are based on emotion, using logical inferrence or not.

One can extend that taxing is better than redistribution even if you do not have this preference order yourself. Suppose that person A has the preference order

Poor people's wellbeing > My wellbeing > Rich people's wellbeing

This is clearly a likely preference order for an altruistic wealthy person. But this person will definitely be mixed with people of type B with the preference order

My own wellbeing > Poor people’s wellbeing > Rich people’s well being

It is clear that there are deals acceptable for people of type B which involves a collective commitment to give to poor people. The person of type A is clearly willing to give unilaterally to poor people, but this will also affect the incentives of the type B people to give. If A withholds money and enter into negotiatons with the type B people, type A can strike a deal in which he gets to keep more money than when unilaterally giving, the poor people have the same amount of money, and the other rich B people have less. As B people's welfare are not as important to A as his own, this is an improvement.

Hence, the free-riding argument can be made clear with very reasonable preference orders and an altruistic person ready to give unilaterally.

How is that the best response? Seems like it would simply be a way to dismiss a revealed contradiction in one's behaviour while also indulging in the pleasure of self-flagellating morally.

> The best response is to accept the argument and admit one’s partial moral inferiority

For what it's worth, that's exactly my response. I believe that I should give much more than I do. I also believe that governmental redistribution serves an important purpose (which overlaps with but is not the same as private charity). There's not really an inconsistency here. You could certainly accuse me of hypocrisy, but that doesn't get you very far. Hypocrisy is pretty endemic to the human experience, from what I can see, and it doesn't bear on the moral question at hand.

And, yes, the argument is juvenile. Any argument that hinges crucially on the behavior of Bill Gates probably is one you need to be thinking harder about.

It surprises me how few people are willing to accept this line of reasoning. There is little to lose socially in admitting one is morally flawed; in fact, I think it works in the opposite direction- admitting one isn't the greatest person signals a comfortable humility and peace about things.

People that believe more (public) redistribution is preferable often think that holding this belief in and of itself makes them more "morally good" than people that do not favor more redistributive policies. It is a pose of "wanting to help the poor"--without having to do it---that allows them to indulge in self-righteousness. It is therefore very rare for this group or sub-group to think of (private) redistribution as a moral imperative which they themselves selfishly fail to live up to. While a rational position, it takes all the fun out of their (costlessly constructed) moral self-image.

In any case, much of this discussion is seems moot, because I am pretty sure Tyler's hypothetical interlocutor is pushing for policies that redistribute mainly to the middle-class in rich countries, and much less so to the poor in rich countries or the poor in poor countries.

How you frame an argument determines how you respond to it.

Take today's post: It focuses on REDISTRIBUTION or REDISTRIBUTIONISTS.

Now, on an economics website, how would you have reacted to the words: PROGRESSIVE TAXATION.

Would that have elicited a different response? A discussion about the marginal untility of a dollar to a wealthy person relative to a poor person?

I think so. So, watch the language that is used and how it is being used to influence your judgment and argument,

And, step back and think about other words that carry different emotional reactions.

So, let's talk about progressive taxation and marginal utility.

"how would you have reacted to the words"

Bill, when you read those framing papers, I'm not in any of them. Those papers include the people who determine policy. Economics blogs are victims of framing, but politicians are neutral?

And seriously, you think "Progressive taxation" is more neutral than "redistribution."

If "Progressive" wasn't non-neutral, then liberals wouldn't be changing their name.


Armed roberry elicits the same emotional response as the redistributionist framing, so the effect is that with those words you will get emotional responses, not rational responses.

Bill, give it a name then. I'll use whatever you want. I'll even use "progressive" but you can't seriously say that is remotely neutral framing can you? Comparatively, "redistribution" is pretty darn neutral because that is the most descriptive thing that we are talking about. "Progressive taxation" simply means taking more from higher earners. It doesn't mean that money actually gets...redistributed.

Oh please, you don't care whether a phrase provokes an emotional response, you just prefer the euphemism for which the emotional response is most convenient to your argument.

Heck, I'd say "redistributionist" is if anything too whitewashed a phrase (also, it doesn't mean the same thing as "progressive taxation" which only covers the taking side of the equation).

More accurate would be "coercive redistributionist" and better yet would be "extorting money from the most productive people under threat of imprisonment and giving it to the least productive, using democratic forms to provide a veneer of legitimacy."

Yes because income and productivity are 100% correlated. Angelo Mozillo was totally worth the 100 million he pocketed at Countrywide...

That's a question between him and the people who paid him.

Was Michael Jordan worth the hundreds of millions he was paid to put a ball in a metal hoop? Even assuming the action had any intrinsic value, lots of people are willing to do it for free.

If you gather wealth through voluntary exchange, society deems you to have produced something useful -- that's why they give you the money.

Michael Jordan made much, much more money shilling Nike, Gatorade, McDonald's, Hane's, etc. than he ever did at his night job putting a ball in a metal hoop. Salesman first, ballplayer second.

Not until this moment did I realize the emotional slant of the word "productivity." A profitable business (or individual) that uses shady tactics is productive. A charity is not productive.

If a business or individual uses "shady tactics" we are generally free to not do business with them, and perhaps seek legal recourse. In many cases, what one sees as "shady" may be seen by others as a useful service.


It is indeed juvenile. Having rich people pay higher taxes than they do now does not have to be based on the appeals to their (or anybody's) moral values or even to the diminsihing marginal utility of money. One could argue that the rich should pay more because they benefit more than the poor from various public goods, including protection of property rights, roads, airports, etc. There is also the related argument that greater after-tax income equality is essential to maintaining social order. In this sense, it is actually in the interest of the rich to pay more if they want to avoid pitchforks in the future. Obama sending in any additional tax paymetns makes no difference for either of those two arguments. In fact, he is better off not sending any money to the IRS whether others do or not. And the (only?) way to overcome this collective action problem is to force everybody to do it.
Also, by that juvenile argument, the people who advocate spending cuts should refuse social security checks, Medicare, stop driving on public roads, etc. Somehow, I don't see either Mankiw or Landsburg voluntarily reducing their consumption of government-produced public goods.

"Also, by that juvenile argument, the people who advocate spending cuts should refuse social security checks, Medicare, stop driving on public roads, etc. Somehow, I don’t see either Mankiw or Landsburg voluntarily reducing their consumption of government-produced public goods."

You know, I don't say that very often, but this is an excellent point, very much overlooked.

I am planning to refuse social security. I am currently 'refusing' unemployment that I think I could collect, but haven't checked because I don't want it. The driving on roads meme is dumb. Those are actual public goods for the most part. I paid for them. It's not my fault I can't pay a private company, which I actually am in a lot of cases with government as the middleman. In the same way, I'd be almost justified in collecting some of what I paid in to the SS and UI, except that they are pay-as-you go and partly I don't want to give any comfort to the enemy.

I'm just not planning to get social security. Neither is anyone my age who has seen the state of its finances.

But regardless, it's a false equivalence. You're asking someone to turn down something they've already paid for vs. do something they want to compel others to do.

And people who advocate eliminating spending know full well that their benfits will be affected, not just some nameless category like "the rich".

"And people who advocate eliminating spending know full well that their benfits will be affected, not just some nameless category like “the rich”.

It depends on what spending is eliminated. It looks like the most significant spending cuts that are being discussed (Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid) are going to affect the poor much more than the rich. And Lou, my other reply was primarily meant for Andrew, but it is also relevant to some of your statements.

Hm... You are planning to refuse social security, but are refusing to stop using public roads because you "paid for them"? I thought that the whole reason for the deficit is that we as taxpayers haven't yet paid for those public goods in the sense that we have borrowed to pay for them, i.e. "you" didn't pay for them. Also, are you saying that all public goods, including roads, should be provided by private companies? Do you like stopping at tolls? But by all means, please refuse your social security checks. I'll certainly appreciate it. And if more people follow your example, perhaps we won't have to raise eligibility age and can keep the current COLA formula.

Redistribution generally refers to transfer payments, not public goods.

There is also the related argument that greater after-tax income equality is essential to maintaining social order. In this sense, it is actually in the interest of the rich to pay more if they want to avoid pitchforks in the future

The word for this is "extortion."

Extortion is my taxes going to feed war and a defense contracting industry that I don't morally support.

Then you should be an anarchocapitalist!
Anarchocapitalism is the only way you will ever get out of supporting war industry.

Why? Did the military threaten you?

I am not advocating pitchforks. In fact, I think pitchforks would be bad for exverybody, both the rich and the poor, and probably worse for the poor.But I am just stating a fact of (social) life based on many historical examples. As I said in my initial post, it's not necessarily about morality.

Isn't there a flip side, that if you strongly believe in the efficiency of free markets that you should never give to charity? This is because, under the assumed philosophy any money not invested/consumed in the for-profit economy will be inefficiently allocated. Thus, much better to buy a stock or a car than give to the United Way.

No, because the charity is part of the free market. (Charitable contributions are voluntary)

Well, yes, but the charity is not allocating its money according to the profit motive, according to its self interest -- thus, no invisible hand. There is some competition between charities, but it cannot be expected to be as "perfect" as an ideal for-profit market, and thus not offering maximum efficiency.

"Well, yes, but the charity is not allocating its money according to the profit motive, according to its self interest"

Yes it is. The people that give to charity want their money used for such and such. Its a consumption good for them.

But the argument you're making is a slippery slope. If it's a moral imperative to spend a few hundred dollars to save a life, then it is a moral imperative to spend another hundred dollars and another hundred and another hundred until you only have barely enough to live on yourself.

I think you just touched on why "redistributionists" and "conservatives" are talking past each other. Conservatives think the argument is all about charity (the moral imperatives you mentioned) and thus, a private decision is sufficient and quite possibly better.

Redistributionists think the argument is about the structure of society and the social pact. After all, "paying more in taxes" does not equate with "saving lives and giving to the poor" and I wouldn't assume redistributionists genuinely think this is the goal. In the mind of redistributionists, paying more in taxes might mean less potholes in the road, or a tree planting initiative in an urban area, or paying down the debt, or any number of projects that cannot post a sign claiming to be "moral imperatives."

Redistributionists probably care about poverty, well, at least, they feel they should care about poverty based on their perceived values, so when an argument is made about "moral imperatives" for the poor, they fall for the bait, but I do not believe that, on the issue of taxes, the issue is about saving lives and charity.

The social pact! Is that the document they made me sign while I was hanging upside down after being pushed out into the world?

Yep! You were probably crying too much to remember.

Well, yes. You can either participate in society or not. But if you're not going to, there's an awful lot you'll need to check at the door on the way out.

Not as much as you probably think.

And good luck actually getting them to leave you alone when you try, which should tell you something about who really needs who.

But that's just the point.

This whole argument is about the current social pact and do we like it.

Cliff thinks he never agreed to a social pact, so it doesn't/shouldn't exist. I think there is a social pact even though no one explicitly agreed to it; we implictly agree to it by living in a society and by being social beings.

So the true argument is about whether or not there is a social pact. And if we can get past that part and the result is that there is a social pact, then the question becomes "do we like the structure of the social pact that is in place?" And if the answer is no, then the question is "How would we like to change the structure?"

The argument is not, and should never have been, about moral imperatives.

I almost think these are unrelated issues.

It is good for poor people to have better lives, for lives to be saved, etc. This is a reason to argue for greater redistribution and also to give to effective charity. Of course you should give to effective charity. Of course you should give more than you do. Of course virtually all of us, "redistributionist" or not, should "accept [that] and admit one’s partial moral inferiority" to those who give much more.

But it is also good - as redistributionists think, and as libertarians do not think, or do not think in the same way, etc. - that there be a community with a strong commitment to some form of equality and safety net. It is good to have a society where everyone can expect a dignified retirement. It is good to have a society where no one dies because they can't afford very basic medical care. It is good to have a society, as foosion says, where the rich don't own the political system. It is good to have a society where some basic core of experiences and goods are available to all even if they're lazy or incompetent or down on their luck or stricken by disease or accident or born to poor parents or whatever. The contents of that core are highly debatable; libertarians might list only "police protection" or "nothing" while pie-eyed OWS types would list "a nice house, a car, a graduate degree and first-class medical care."

But the point is that those ends cannot be achieved or even mitigated by me, or probably anyone including Warren Buffett, giving people money. If I pay for one person's medical care, or for 1000 people's care, that doesn't move us to a society where everyone has access to medical care. It mitigates individual suffering but doesn't effect the societal change that I want as a redistributionist. And that desire for societal change may be driven by something other than, or in addition to, the desire to mitigate individual suffering.

The huge assumption that you are making is that redistributionist policies actually provide equality, or maximize resources for a social safety net, or all those nice things you dream about.

Libertarians would argue that redistributionist policies redistribute from the middle and working class to capitalist oligarchs and clients of the ruling class... that redistributionist policies achieve none of the goals of equality or funding the welfare state that you imagine. We don't oppose equality, or a minimum standard of living - We simply don't take it as an article of faith that the government is a benevolent entity willing or able to do that.

What fun is redistribution without coercion?

Anyone ever accuse you of being a broken record? If not, let me be the first. Give it a rest, coercion-boy. Clearly the oppression you feel is making life unbearable but keep it to yourself.

Don't blame me, I'm just the messenger.

This must be that new civility the left is so excited about.

Playing Devil's Advocate here:

1. I believe there is a line of thinking in Marxist thought that strongly disfavors private charity, because resources devoted to private charity could be better spent toward activities that help to reshape the foundational structures of society, and because private charity allows those in government to feel that they are off the hook for looking after the needs of the proletarians.

2. I am not saying that most, or many, of the OWS folks are Marxists (I've seen no evidence of that); but I think one could argue that ideas from Marxist economics and political philosophy have trickled into progressive/social democratic schools of thought.

3. Perhaps the moral imperative to help any single individual is subordinated to the moral imperative to restructure society.

4. I don't have any good cites for all of this; I'm not a Marxist or an expert on Marxism. If I am mistaken in all or any of this, I am sure that my fellow commenters will not hesitate to correct me.

I didn't realize that either redistributionists or non-redistributionists were arguing against charitable giving until I read this blog post.

You've never heard anyone express a preference for coercive redistribution over a reliance on voluntary giving?

Most left wingers I have talked to, do just that.

Hmm, TallDave, to most people your response seems like a batshit crazy nonsequitor. You seem to be implying both:

... if a person prefers X to Y, this means they are _against_ Y
... preferring X to Y is equivalent to preferring X to a _a reliance_ on Y

Otherwise, your question/rephrasing addressed to teh_boy makes no sense. Here I am, a single person, and I assert:
- I am in favor of charitable giving
- In fact, all else being equal, I prefer to former to coercive redistribution
- If society had to _rely_ on voluntary giving I would prefer (*) coercive redistribution.

I think your head is likely to explode, since you don't seem to think these are consistent thoughts - except for I bet everyone reading this thread beside you see that they are.

(*) IMHO, The USA relying on voluntary giving would collapse to a stone-age society without external help. Many other Western countries retain enough social cohesion that they might survive roughly as is.

previous comment has formatting totally messed up, sorry; bottom line is that TallDave's response to "teh_boy" is just bizarre - if intended honestly. Assuming that this is a mistake TallDave would personally benefit from posting a clarification that showed that he had some understanding of the parent point and was responding to it rather than just
picking rant#372 out of a hat.

A dollar that has been coerced away for redistribution cannot be freely given to charity, so the conflict between the two is unavoidable.

You may also want to read a little history, as the U.S. was not a Stone Age society before the advent of the welfare state -- most likely we'd be a wealthier country on average without it, as it punishes work and subsidizes nonwork.

But I did find your claim to speak for everyone reading the thread amusing, so thanks for that.

One argument may be a marginal one. If you think the biggest or only consideration is how well the resources are utilized and what it's used for (e.g. me) you are not going to meet the threshold. If you also think that the confiscation from the rich as a benefit regardless of how well or poorly the resources are used this can kick you over the edge.

I don't care how altruistic liberals are, but I think people are missing Tyler's point here. Have they reached their max altruism already, and if so, why do they want taxes higher?

I find this to be a (willful?) conflation of separate matters. It comes, perhaps, from the 'moral obligation' component of the discussion, which--to be fair--was probably initiated by the redistribution camp, if not by its most articulate members.
But we're talking about a question of moral obligation in a vacuum (i.e. those with plenty ought to give to the needy) vs. moral obligation as a component of upholding the social contract to which everyone who lives in a society has consented, whether explicitly or not. The alternative to the latter is literally to go found your own private Libertaria somewhere else, and see how far you make it. Oh, and do it without any of the money you made while you were deciding you're above the society whose very existence allowed you to exercise whatever talent it was that made you wealthy (that last bit can be the most galling when a significant contingent of those fighting any and all redistribution seem not to have any such talents beyond "My parents earned it.")

And that's to say nothing of the political sh*tstorm that would ensue if everyone who favors progressive taxation and social programs suddenly started giving the difference between their current taxes and their vision of the ideal degree of taxation to charity. Immediately, the right side of the aisle would crow that government programs--the only programs beholden to all citizens--are unnecessary in this era of charity. And, if the left ever managed to get the tax- and social programs- structure it seeks into place, a vast network of charities would find themselves collapsing as their funders withdrew their donations in favor of paying their taxes.

Wow, there's a lot going on in the post and comments for a Friday morning (TGIF you all). Here's my thoughts: 1) there are public goods (infrastructure, education, defense) required to create a quasi-level playing field and like it or not the basic supply of those good requires some central authority 2) money is not the only way to give...many people give of their time (an hour spent with a child maybe far better than giving them a dollar) good luck measuring that by political affiliation 3) outside of "mandated giving" (taxes), the decision of when/what/where to give and to whom is a personal need to get all moral about it.

And soldiers, policemen and firemen give with their lives.

You also raise an interesting point when you mentioned that money is not the only way to give: what about people who volunteer, serve in the Peace Corps or Americorps serving others, take a job below the market rate to serve others: those are not included in the "money" calculation of who contributes to charity, are they?

First, it is noted that as % of income, the lower income earners donate more to charity than upper income earners. Second, Gates and Buffet through Gates, have developed a plan fo charitable donation of most of their wealth. Third, I reject the libertarian premise that all wealth and property belong to someone because of his skill, her intelligence, his talernt, her virtue, or because they are God's chosen (if we bring God into it, there are far more quotes in the Old and New Testament condeming the wealthy and their persecution of the poor, but as the existence (or non-existence of God is beyond rationale proof) I don't think He/She belongs in an econmics/sociology debate, the very definition of "Worldly Philosphies."). Fourth, as any regular reader of "AdamsSmith'sLostLegacy" will realize, the economic production and wealth come from all the labor and talents in the society in a society, not just a few, and it is not right for that few to use their position of power and influence to capture and outrageous portion of the wealth. And this gets to the fifth point, if we really want a free, democratic, society, and not a police state, some redistribution of wealth is necessary to avoid oligarchy and a return to feudalism, where the many will be dependent on patronage of the few, a few really selected by birth and privilege. Again, I prefer the American society of the late 1940s through 1960s, the society created by the New Deal and WWII, over the society that preceded it in the 1920s or the society we are involving to, one with a few holding great wealth and willing to use force to maintain, and many impoverished and reduced to status of seeking service with a great lord.

During the 1990-1991 downturn, I led a board that raised $3 million to build an institution that has taught health education to almost a miilion children. The vast majority of the money came from private individuals and corporations. The named benefactors were among the most well off in my state, but the majority of donors were upper middle to middle class donors.

When the economy collapsed in 2008, contributions dried up. At the same time, in its infinite wisdom, the Obama administration pushed the idea that charitable contributions should no longer be tax deductible. ( I had no idea this is tenant of Marxism.) Were they insane? The ensuing outcry quashed the idea. Simultaneously, the state and local governments, under great stress,failed to renew grants to the insitution, this despite constant government preaching about the need for preventive education.. It teetered on the brink of collapse. Because of the respect of a man for one of the founders of the organization, when he learned of the possible demise of the school, he gave a gift that saved its operations. Contributions have gradually picked up.

However, because the school is health-related, one-third of its donors and many of its founders, were doctors. Since Medicare has severely cut reimbursements to specialists and promises to do more, many of their practices are at the edge of bankruptcy. When making the calculation of saving the jobs of their employees vs. making charitable contributions, they are forced to try to save the jobs. So in the future, contributions from this important constituency are uncertain.

More than a decade ago, my community and citizens across the state made the decision that this insitution represented important ideals and aspirations. None of the governments that had been grantors saw fit to safeguard the private investments in the institution - of blood and sweat as well as money - or the jobs of its employees, when crunch time came. It was up to the private sector.

I, for one, do not wish to have predatory governments (your money is our money) dictating local aspirations by providing money that is very narrowly targeted based on the newest fad of the policy wonks. Democracy is just not about voting, but about leaving people alone to make choices that they think are important.

I don't understand your point at all. I doubt that big, bad government has stood in your way of providing health education services to the general public.

Sounds more like you're pissed that the sources of its subsidies (obscene Medicare billing and tax incentives) have dried up. That about it?

If I advocate for the forcible redistribution of other peoples' wealth, yet I live my own life consuming beyond the basic needs for human survival, I am saying that some level of creature comfort is "acceptable" before redistribution is morally justified. Well-meaning people differ on what level of creature comfort is acceptable; why does your opinion have more moral weight than mine, to the extent that your mob is justified in appropriating my wealth? To further that discussion, shouldn't we each be morally required to labor as many hours as humanly possible, at the highest-paying job we can find, to support those less fortunate? To do less is to admit that some level of comfort is acceptable, whereupon it's just a question of opinion as to how much.

The "conservatives give more to charity than liberals" argument is spurious because it does not take account of the huge amount of foregone income, amounting to a contribution of human capital, that (mostly) liberals give up when they choose careers in the nonprofit rather than for-profit sector. It only counts direct contributions.

Except that the vast majority of careers in the non-profit sector do not necessarily benefit society, and are essentially fashion statements that elevate one's social status.

It's not spurious because it is what we can measure. The overbroad conclusions people attempt to draw, well not even really draw but for their own insight but propagandize, are probably spurious.

To give to a charity is virtuous, but to work for one is a fashion statement?

Random notes:

1. I think this is the first time I've ever seen anyone acknowledge the existence of secular conservatives.

2. I've never seen a soup kitchen in front of a museum; but see them in front of churches regularly.

1. Funny. But, if you completely discount religious affiliation, they are all secular ;)

By the way, I am sick to death of liberals who will fight for high taxation for social programs so that the government can do what parents should be doing. I have seen irreparable harm done to children because their infantile and undisciplined parents think it is ok to have four children by four different fathers, without the fathers contributing a single nickel to their support , much less guiding their upbringing. Children need parents who provide safety, stability and emotional security. Kids can't learn in school if they are awake half of the night listening to the turmoil in their homes and then come to school without breakfast.

When the president has the guts to say: Stop having kids without marriage first. Stop abandoning your children. Stop the stupid divorces. Then I will have a lot more respect for him and his fellow liberals.

I'm liberal and totally agree with you. We shouldn't be providing incentives for stupid or evil behavior.

I'm for distributing resources to those who truly need it and deserve it (those thrust into bad situations through no fault of their own.) Not to those who are lazy and whose energy is solely focused on gaming the system.

Though I'm far more pissed off about banks and CEO types being rewarded for stupid or evil behavior gaming the system than I am a legion of welfare queens. Welfare queens will never be rich from redistribution: CEOs and bankers are.

The president did say this:

Another side to this argument is who benefits from the forced redistribution. From a purely moral consideration, redistribution in the developed world is largely a failure. $100 billion spent on the poor in the US is far less beneficial than the same $100 billion would be spent on the poor in the third world. I have actually seen Americans complain about the money Bill Gates has spent addressing the problems of the poor in Africa when he could have spent more of it here in the US.

Funnily, plenty of people who support redistribution really only favor it on a national scale. To think globally, one effective re-distributive policy seems job outsourcing. If an American job shifts to, say, Thailand it is most often re-distributive. Even better, oftentimes one American worker gets replaced by multiple third world workers due to productivity differences.

Alas, the ostensible redistributionists hardly favor this approach.

Tribalism is powerful.

“The people who give more, yes, in some important ways they are better people than I am.”

Absolutely correct. Every liberal should openly acknowledge that collective failing relative to conservative donors.

My wish that we should circumvent the collective-action problem by raising taxes (including, notably, on me), and my belief that personal giving can't effect that collective-action goal, does not obviate my moral failing in failing to give more individually.

And I can't resist quoting my excessively clever U Chicago daughter:

"Dad, just because you admit you're a hypocrite doesn't mean you're any less of a hypocrite."


But this all starts with the wrong premise.

"if government action to redistribute income is morally required"

The proper argument is "if redistribution is necessary to maintain growth and prosperity in a modern, high-productivity society..."

There isn't a single thriving, prosperous country in the world that doesn't engage in major doses of redistribution. If it were so efficient to eschew those practices, wouldn't a country that does so have emerged, and surged ahead of all the rest?

At least ONE?

Hasn't happened.

Is that imagined libertarian paradise of a country a literal "utopia" -- no land?

Well, I moved from a country that is more redistributionist to one that is less redistributionist (the US) and the quality of life in this country is way better than where I previously lived. So there is one datapoint.
Additionally, where I live now there is substantially way more philantropy than in that more redistributionist country I left. I never gave to charity in the old country and no I give a lot to charity. Less redistribitionist societies make people more charitable. Another datapoint.

No one here is arguing there should be 0 redistribution. The question is the optimal level, and through what mechanism, and whether at gunpoint or not..

I can name two societies that tried to maximize redistribution - one from its creative class to everyone else, the Soviet Union - the other, from Northern Europe to its citizens, namely Greece. Maximizing redistribution != good idea. Two more datapoints.

Considering that a good chunk of my taxes are a redistribution scheme to support a military industrial complex that I don't need or benefit from in any direct or even indirect way, I would rather those funds go toward something more important (to me): helping feed the poor. I don't have that choice, but I should.

The main problem I have with conservatives isn't so much that they want to reduce government spending and limit taxation - it's where they want those tax inflows to outflow.

Show me a plan that reduces taxes by wiping out most of what supports the defense contracting DC area and all pork from Republican pet projects and subsidies, and I'm on board that train.

Want to see my plan? It won't take long.

A lot of those conservatives I think just want the money to go to soldiers so it doesn't go to drug addicts. See the problem here?

That's exactly my point.

Conservatives call the channeling of tax money to the poor "redistribution" but the channeling of tax money to war-mongering and all contractors supporting it is "sound international policy" or the reductionist "keeping our country safe."

Conservatives blithely ignore the redistribution of federal funds from blue states to red states.

Then end the income tax and thus end the redistribution of income taxes from blue to red states!

Conservatives blithely ignore the redistribution of federal funds from blue states to red states.

It's still generally a transfer of wealth from red voters to blue voters, because broadly speaking incomes correlates with voting GOP.

"if government action to redistribute income is morally required, in the meantime is not greater private charity morally required too?"

Yes, obviously, for many of the reasons you state.

However you skipped the most important issue: private charity is far, far, far more efficient and effective than government taxation when it comes to providing help. In fact it is ludicrous to put them in the same area code. Unless you think cancer research is on the same moral plane as giving Solyndra executives enormous bonuses.

You might want to check for most of the funding for cancer research comes from before making that comparison. Also for every "wasteful government program" there are just as many con artists stealing money in the name of charity or only giving a small portion of what they actually receive to the cause. No government is not perfect, but neither is private charity.

Redistributionist policy stems from an ends-justify-the-means mentality. What makes the policy sensible, to a redistributionist, is not the payment of the tax, but the end result of structural economic equality. The policy is concerned with a particular quality of result rather than a particular quality of process. The Landsburg argument only focuses on process and does nothing to address what redistributionists actually care about. No one can sensibly argue that voluntary individual payments would achieve the type of economic equality that liberals desire. If conservatives actually want to persuade liberals that it's bad policy, they should point to the larger costs of redistribution (of which there are plenty), not its moral undertones. They need to attack the goal, not the process. This argument gets nowhere because it simply repeats one side's assumptions without addressing the other side's assumptions.

Redistribution is a great debate but I think the important issue OWS raises is: what is it about our markets, economy and political system that concentrates wealth?

Credit & debt.

The federal reserve sets low interest rates and loans money to the banks. Consumers take out loans from the banks (at a higher interest rate.) You pay the bank and the bank pays the reserve. Net effect is you transferring a portion of the value you created to the bank. The same things applies to every debt.

Additionally, people who want the government to take out debt to provide social services are effectively transferring money from the middle 52% to the wealthy and foreign nations. It's not the poor buying treasury bonds.

If we think of one's lot in life as being determined, in large part, by luck, a system is that is maximally redistributive subject to incentive compatibility constraints could be argued for on ex-ante efficiency grounds. The government needs to do this because we can't contract prior to our conception. I.e. we want a redistributive system precisely because we know we can't commit to being fair individually.

A don't-miss: Psychoshistorian's comment on this subject over at Modeled Behavior:

"If I say, “We should all bring a dish so we can have a potluck,” but people don’t agree, I am not a hypocrite if I later fail to show up with food. If I suggest to my two brothers that we should all pitch in to buy our parents a vacation, I am not morally obligated to pay for a third of a vacation regardless of their decision. If I advocate that our cities zoning laws should limit houses to three stories, there’s nothing hypocritical about building a 4 story house if that ordinance fails – doubly so when all my other neighbors are building four story houses.

"There is nothing inconsistent about being willing to bear a larger part of a reciprocal burden, but being unwilling to pitch in absent a larger framework. This is particularly true at the high reaches of wealth, where income is significantly positional. If other people’s incomes are also reduced by taxes, there’s an overall downward shift in the demand for certain luxury services. If I pitch in without this reciprocation, my ability to pay shifts, but the equilibrium price does not."

It really sounds like you are arguing that these people want to make the rich poorer, not actually make the poor richer.

Say wha?

1. Who are "these people" in Psychohistorian's comment?

2. Where does it say what you say it says?

He's making that exact argument, Steve, only he's trying to use a metaphor that sounds less bad.

Notice he doesn't say "If I suggest my poor cousin rob my rich uncle of $1M at gunpoint, I am not a hypocrite if I refuse to give him $100." which would be more accurate. They always elide the coercion.

Very good point, I'll remember that one.

Not only does this thread deserve a "like", but my appreciation goes out to the entire group for such civil, well-thought discourse free of the vitriolic blather so common on this type of medium. I can see, and appreciate this issue from a number of angles. When it come to one's redistributionist personal philosophy (read: behavior), doesn't it ultimately come back to where each is on their own hierarchy of needs? Self-actualizers, well beyond seeking safety and assured they won't miss a meal will seek the good feelings that altruism delivers. At the Gates / Buffet level it is about legacy. In the example of the religious poor are they seeking self-actualization or safety from a disappointed deity? In the case of the stingy secular conservatives, have they been scarred by any number of factors from a depression upbringing, to hand-me-down philosophies that keep them from climbing the pyramid? Is an increasingly progressive taxation a help or a hindrance to altering behavior? Would we do better focusing on strategies that gets everyone to create more value, gain self-esteem, move up the pyramid and reward society with their altruism?

Big fan of your blog, Tyler, so I say this with love. This post sucks. You clearly did not think very hard on this one.

First, conservatives give more than liberals because conservatives are more religious and religious people give more. (Religious liberals give, if I remember correctly, about as much as religious conservatives.) If you mentioned the bit about chairty to feel some smug moral superiority by identification.... aren't you one of the bad guys?

Second, yes obviously people who favor redistribution should give their own money. And they should give it to the starving people in Africa. (GiveWell recommends to health projects and has a few specific ones. I think they are right.) But this assumes people have a coherent moral philosophy and they don't. The fact that many of these people want redistribution from the wealthy to the moderately less wealthy (vis a vis student loan modification) and don't care a lick about the starving people overseas says a lot about how much thought they gave to their claims. (See you have something in common wth them.)

Third, when did doing more moral things make someone a better person? I'm a standard act utilitarian. I think I should give almost all my money to charity and I don't think being ONE soldier landing in Normany did anything for anyone. Does that mean I think people who donate $10 for food in Africa are better people than D-Day vets? You can take a guess.

It's not just religion. In "Who Really Cares?" Arthur Brooks controls for a host of variables. The effect gets smaller when you control for religion, income, etc, but it's there. One great statistic is that self-identified conservatives are 18% more likely to give blood than self-identified liberals. Beyond religion, conservatives are more charitable than liberals.

Now, that doesn't mean that liberals don't "care". For instance, many liberals that I know feel that collective action is the ONLY way to deal with poverty. Charity, to them, is demeaning to the recipient. The idea of calling welfare payments "charity" makes them howl. And that's the difference, there are people who feel that charity enhances society and others who feel that it makes the giver "feel good" and demeans the recipient. In my opinion, conservatives tend to believe the former while liberal tend to believe the latter.

You might want to read the critique of Brooks piece in the NYT article above. No one also seems to include in the monetary calculation: peace corps volunteers, persons working in charities for less than their market opportunity costs, etc, and the inclusion of religion as a charity. If you want to treat religion as a charity, would you agree to limit religious deductions for just those amounts of religious expenditures spent on charity?

No one seems to include missionaries, people working in ministries, etc either.

Can we also eliminate enviro groups, racial advocacy groups, animal rights groups... man, this could go on forever.

Oh, but TallDave, if you only measure money, you only measure what the wealthy can contribute.
You don't see the skew or bias?

So I believe in a draft for national service and we don't have one I suppose I must volunteer for the army. I should serve while others skate. I don't buy it.

People who advocate your argument believe in making the rich poorer, not the poor richer. They won't help unless their relative income ends up unchanged, so what they want to do is compress the distribution not raise the bottom end?

Agree with post.

It should be pointed out that G.A. Cohen, a philosopher of the left if ever there was one, wrote a whole book on the subject, called "If You're An Egalitarian, How Come You're So Rich," where he attempted to address the normative issue (not the "conservatives happen to give more" sub-point), and in which he was unable to come up with any good reason why a rich egalitarian shouldn't give away a large proportion of his/her income.

I think he also might have admired the very Parfitian sentence (" some important ways...") that concludes Tyler's post.

The argument, as best I can tell, is, "people who advocate redistribution could give more to charity. Therefore, they are insincere. Therefore, we shouldn't have redistribution."

We spend most of the time debating the first "therefore" because it's more interesting. We all want to be superior, and we spend a lot of time grappling with what moral responsibilities we and others should be burdened with. But the second seems more important to me.

Actually, I think it is more interesting than that. Aside from the points about the Brooks piece (not controlling for relgion, inkind contributions, etc.) the real problem I have is domain consistency.

Let me pose a question:

Which do you think is MORE probable

1. A charity which receives entirely all of its contributions from private individuals SUPPORTING public contributions or OPPOSING public spending in the same domain as the charity (with the charity receiving no public support).

Think about this carefully: afterall, the charity only draws income from voluntary contributions and it must consider the opinions of its contributors, just as AARP must consider what the wishes are of its membership base.

Now, look at the recent campaign by Evangelical groups and liberal church groups supporting foreign aid.

Maybe the argument is that those who give more to charity are not opposed to redistribution. Otherwise, these contributors must be inconsistent, unless these contributors are at the forefront of advocating that the government not do these projects. Which, of course, is not true.

So, I put it to you:

Liberals/socalists by definition feel charity is pointless which is why they give less. Absolute poverty has never been alleviated through redistribution, and relative poverty has never been alleviated through charity. It has absolutely nothing to do with selfishness.

Exactly. The best charity is properly aligned incentives.

Helpful links for the redistributionist:

How do you make a contribution to reduce the debt? (

There are two ways for you to make a contribution to reduce the debt:

You can make a contribution online either by credit card, checking or savings account at (

You can write a check payable to the Bureau of the Public Debt, and in the memo section, notate that it's a Gift to reduce the Debt Held by the Public. Mail your check to:

Attn Dept G
Bureau of the Public Debt
P. O. Box 2188
Parkersburg, WV 26106-2188

How do I make a contribution to the U.S. government? (

Citizens who wish to make a general donation to the U.S. government may send contributions to a specific account called "Gifts to the United States." This account was established in 1843 to accept gifts, such as bequests, from individuals wishing to express their patriotism to the United States. Money deposited into this account is for general use by the federal government and can be available for budget needs. These contributions are considered an unconditional gift to the government. Financial gifts can be made by check or money order payable to the United States Treasury and mailed to the address below.

Gifts to the United States
U.S. Department of the Treasury
Credit Accounting Branch
3700 East-West Highway, Room 622D
Hyattsville, MD 20782

Good point. Republicans who are suddenly uber-concerned about the national debt should be writing checks ad nauseum.

LOL, sooo many comments. How dare you challenge the lefts self-declared moral superiority.

You don't respond to the content of the comments at all - in fact, your argument is just an ad hom. It's not about moral superiority, perhaps 'the left' are just sick of silly right wing smears and generalisations?

I don't know. What I do know is that if more people were more selfish and vindictive, we would have a better world.

I make more money than I need to do the things I like. I have no complaint about the amount of tax I pay. Governments waste money, universities waste money, corporations waste money, small businesses waste money (I have worked for all four) and individuals waste money.

I give a lot of money to charity.

I have no idea if this makes me a good person, a bad person or a foolish person.

Today I picked up some trash along the bike trail. I'm not required to. I do it because I think it is the right thing to do.

Also seeing voluntary payments from Obama (Buffet, Clinton, etc.) will allow us to see exactly what the "fair" level of taxation is, in their opinions.

It's a matter of magnitude. Yes, if the we "should" give more publicly, then there also "should" be a greater moral imperative individually. But that misses the point. The point is that we could go around and ask people, "How much should be given to help the poor?" And maybe we could average out the responses and come up with 100 billion or something. Then, we could ask the same people how much they would give voluntarily, and when we add up the contributions be likely to get 50 billion. Does that mean people are irrational? Does that mean that 100 billion is "over-spending" on redistribution? Or, does it simply mean that people have an incentive to free-ride on the contributions of others?
And, when the economy is in a rough patch, we might find that people think there "should" be more total spending (say 120 billion), but individually (and voluntarily) contribute even less (say 40 billion)! Does THAT mean people are irrational or that their individual behavior is hypocritical? Or are they more individually budget-constrained (and wealth constrained) in ways that the public sector is not?
Private contributions have fallen during the recession for very predictable reasons, even as people may be more concerned about the poor in a public sense.

I have a question for the question. Redistributionism (is that a word?) assumes that excessive inequality leads to an unjust society that eventually collapses. Certainly history seems to show that? But is it true?

The question above can be answered by simple math. Take the richest 1% and divide them up into halves. Assume half give their money away in an orgy of charitable activity. Assume the other half dont. Why doesnt matter. You end up with a more unequal society. The richest 1% has become the richest 0.5%. This is not what a redistributionist wants as it just moves the country closer to collapse. Or at the least vast saudi arabian like stagnation. There is obviously a bit more to it, but that is the overall answer. Individual morality is nice but not a solution.

Your math doesn't work. Suppose the total amount of wealth is $1000. The richest 0.5% has a net worth of $200. The second richest 0.5% has a net worth of $150, meaning the top 1% has a net worth of $350. The third richest 0.5% has a net worth of $100 and the remaining 98.5% has a net worth of $550.

Now suppose a randomly selected cross-section of the top 1% decide to give all their net worth away to members of the lowest 98.5%. This cross-section will have a net worth of approximately $175. Their $175 goes to the bottom 98.5% and raises that group's net worth to $725. The third-richest 0.5% are now "promoted" into the richest 1%. This brings the top 1%'s net worth to $275.

From the prospective of a 1% vs. 99% divide, the orgy of charity you describe has a net effect of reducing wealth equity. Whereas before the orgy the top 1% was in possession of 35% of all wealth, post orgy they're in possession of only 27.5% of all wealth.

All societies have eventually collapsed, equal or not. I don't know that there's much reason to think inequality is any less stable; the Communist experiment with egalitarianism certainly failed horribly in the 20th, even as living standards continued rising in the unequal capitalist countries.

The important question is not whether inequality exists but why. We can agree a kleptocracy like Libya under Gaddafi is a bad thing, but some inequalities arise out of voluntary transactions, and there I do not think there is any moral argument against it -- if you get rich by providing value to many people (Amazon, Google, Apple, WalMart) capitalism has usually rewarded you commensurate with your perceived utility to society.

People may argue whether athletes, entertainers and CEOs deserve their riches as much as Brin, Case, Jobs, etc, but its important to keep in mind all utility is ultimately in the eye of the beholder, and if we as a society overinvested in a JaMarcus Russell or an Angelo Mozilo, we took such risks voluntarily in full knowledge they might not pay off -- but hoping they would benefit us.

i believe the backlash against Tyler is simply because he has touched a nerve. when i look at redistributionists, i can simply categorize them into 3 groups:

Type 1-these are the people who are motivated purely by envy, and make up the overwhelming majority of redistributionists. the idea that someone has more wealth that them is unacceptable. they use the poor as an appeal to emotion. anyone who disagrees with them is obviously cruel and insensitive to their plight. they use the poor as a means to guilt those fortunate. some people in the comments have tried to defend that redistributionists are intentions-based and not results-based. this is completely wrong. they are getting exactly the result they desire-the wealthy now have less wealth as a direct consequence of their intervention. whether the wealth confiscated is used to aid the poor in their own country, or used to kill poor people in other countries, is utterly irrelevant to them.

Type 2-these are the self-absorbed, narcissistic pseudo-intellectuals that make up the second largest segment of redistributionists. they are predominantly upper middle class. they are also completely self-serving, and the idea of helping other people of their own free will is completely foreign to them. they are just incapable of wrapping their minds around the idea of voluntary charity. they need to be forced to donate, and in their conceited nature, believe all others as wealthy as themselves need to be forced as well. another example of their conceit is that they also believe they are more empathetic to those in lower income groups. when they come across some issue that they were previously unaware of, they assume everyone else is equally ignorant. hence they throw numerous "awareness galas." their they invite others of wealth and ask for charitable donations. never mind the fact that they could just have saved the exorbitant sums spent throwing the party and donated that to charity. or the fact that they havent done anything about the party itself. they can pat themselves on the back for a job well done.

type 3-these people are statists, and though the overwhelming minority, they are the most dangerous. these people worship the state with fervor. they also tend to be self-identified atheists. however they are truly not atheists, but anti-theists. they hate religion because it competes directly with the state. whereas religious institutions acquire its finances through voluntary donations, the state acquires it through force with the threat of imprisonment. they also have no moral code. anything that is legal is moral, and anything illegal is immoral. in essence, statism is their religion.

(Note:i know there are many libertarians who are atheist, as i myself am one. however, in my personal experiences with non-libertarian atheists, i have found what ive written above to be the truth. they are skeptical when it comes religion, but have unquestionable faith in government).

i also want to add that you can see the Type 2 people in the OWS protests. they hold signs that say "Tax Me More", even though there is nothing preventing them from making voluntary donations to the government.

overall, i find redistributionists put on front of being virtuous and morally upright, but their motivations are anything but that.

Your intuition that liberals or "redistributionists" or "occupy wall streeters" are motivated by greed or envy or fascism or a desire for control is no different than my intuition that wealthy conservatives who oppose taxation and campaign finance reform are motivated by greed or narcissism or a desire to shortcut hard work and to boost their own circumstances at the expense of others' opportunities. These are perfectly symmetric intuitions. It's much more helpful to me to hear your characterizations of your own views than your characterizations of my views or the views of those like me, particularly since I know approximately what my views are and they are not, I think, as you describe them.

JamesC, The premise--that conservatives give more--is incorrect when you exclude religious contributions, and does not include inkind contributions; Google data also does not support the conclusion. See the NYT article referenced earlier. It probably is no difference between groups.

once again, liberals putting more emphasis on intentions than results. i can care less whats the motivations behind donations. actions speak louder than words, and redistributionists are all hypocrites.

Maybe you can tell me where I fit into your hierarchy. I happen to think a society with fewer poor is likely to be more productive given poverty destroys human potential and exacerbates other societal ills (e.g. crime). My household income is around the 15th percentile. I hold theologically conservative religious beliefs and donate approximately 10% of my gross to charity each year. I'm generally suspicious of state-run enterprises, which is to say I sympathize with the libertarian cause, but also see the wisdom in structuring necessary evils such as the tax system in such a way that they mitigate the income gap and devastating effects of poverty.

News bulletin
First up, research shows that libertarians struggle to understand the motivations of normal people. Next, dog bites man.

Presumably, liberals believe that we owe collectively some amount to the poor on some argument. This works out to a duty to donate X dollars per person. If we assume that liberals believe we should provide a basic income of $10,000 per person, this works out (at a flat rate) to about $3,000 per person to cover everyone in poverty or roughly 6% of median household income. So provided the median liberal donation is 6%, they would seem covered as a bloc.

Given that I believe in redistribution and donate roughly 10% of my income but earn only 40% of median, I am way over-donating once we take belief in progressive taxation into account.

G.A. Cohen's If You're An Egalitarian, How Come You're So Rich is a really fantastic treatment of this question from the point of view of an analytic Marxist.

For the most part, he concludes that egalitarians should donate huge portions of their money unilaterally, but he does come up with a few plausible counterarguments. Many of them revolve around the idea that it is legitimate to value having similar resources to your peers, so unilateral giving is a much larger sacrifice than giving along with your peers.

"Is it even more juvenile to mention that conservatives, on average, give more to charity than do (modern) liberals?"

It's worth noting that what seems to be the most important factor in charitable giving is religiosity. Conservatives, then, are more generous as a group precisely because there are more highly religious folks among them. If you break up the entire population into four groups along the liberal/conservative and religious/non-religious axes, the most generous group are conservative religious, followed very closely behind by the liberal religious. Somewhat further back are the liberal non-religious, and in dead last are the conservative non-religious.

This may have little bearing on your argument, but I always see people citing the "conservatives are more generous" statistic which, while true, doesn't mean what they think it means (i.e. that conservatism is the relevant characteristic).

If education is a "public good", then we presumably want more of it. Given how terrible the government schools are, and how good home-schooling is, we should shut down all Departments of Education, all School Boards, all Curriculum Boards, and all government schools at once.

The average home-schooled student scores at the 85th percentile - 35 points above the average victim of government schools.

It is best to think of government schools as the equivalent of soviet grocery stores - too little, too unavailable.

I've had this discussion with home schooling advocates before. How big of a difference do you think there would be if one compared the set of home schooled students to the set of non-home-schooled students with married parents who take an avid interest in their childrens' education? Assuming you also adjusted for parental education, race and socioeconomic status (measured by the highest single earner instead of total household income since home-schooling households are usually single-earner), I'm guessing the home-schooling advantage would almost completely disappear.

Addendum: Byran Caplan has never nailed anything in relation to political economy and he's not about to start now. Libertarians: stop paraphrasing MF and come up with your own stuff. I'm guessing your ideology just disappeared.

Regarding blood donations re conservatives, liberals or zombies:

Claim Not supported by the evidence:

Here is an abstract of a recent paper on determinants of voluntary blood donations: Factors of voluntary responses listed in abstract.

Here is a literature review paper on the determinants of philanthropy: liberal or conservative distinctions do not appear:

liberal or conservative distinctions do not appear

I think you mean "were not examined."

No, that's not true. Look again at the abstract.

"The people who give more, yes, in some important ways they are better people than I am.”

If I make $100, and give a dollar, that costs me more than if you make $10000, and give $100. I thought this was elementary economic reasoning.

WTF? Am I missing something?

That assumes the other person didn't work 100x harder to make 100x as much money.

My idiot, dittohead brother works >60 hrs/wk for about $30,000/yr. El Rushbo 'works'/ talks nonsense into a microphone for 15 hrs/wk for ~$30,000,000/yr. Obviously Rush Limbaugh works 4000x harder for that money than my idiot brother. [ps-in case it's not clear, my brother is an idiot for a) listening to and believing Rush Limbaugh, b) working >60 hrs/wk for $30,000/yr, c) quitting jr. college after one semester, d) not comprehending the difference between marginal and effective tax rates... ]

1) Except for comparing at the margins, it is physically impossible to work 100x harder than someone else employed in the mainstream economy. And even there, I suspect you won't like the comparison of someone doing day labor picking lettuce and your average white-shoe attorney.

2) Marginal value of money does not depend on effort. You sound like a Marxist here.

I think that Tyler Cowen misunderstands this issue completely.

Conservatives position private charity as an ENEMY to more organized and systematic programs to help people.

Also, the argument for more organized and systematic programs is efficiency. You cannot help everyone. If you are going to help someone, you need to do a lot of background work just to ensure your help is effective. I don't want to give cash to a stranger who may then use that cash on alcohol or waste it. The transactions costs of effectively helping someone are high.

Conservatives who focus on private charity are not only not morally superior. They are positively harmful to society, because they block programs that are more systematic and efficient. As a computer scientist, my time is better spent programming computers. My time is not necessarily well spent figuring out how to devote resources to solving social problems. But conservatives want to make solving social problems my individual responsibility. Or I have to give to charities, even though I have no idea how they will spend the money.

The Fatal Conceit appears again.

David, I'm glad you made that point. What you sometimes see, though, is that the government does intervene as a coordinator of NGO activities, so it is not an entirely either/or in terms of efficiency. On the other hand, if we relied on private charity, we have only to look at US history of the 1890s to see that private charity was a failure relative to more organized government programs that later developed.

I think sometimes Libertarians like to visualize a prior state of perfection in their mind without looking at history.

If, in looking at history, one could have postulated a superior prior charity program you would have seen someone offer it as an example.

The fact the dog did not bark is telling.

Byran Caplan, as is common, is way off on this one. He writes:

"If you're obligated to help the poor, you should fulfill your obligation even if the government looks the other way."

The problem with this is It makes moral obligation to help the poor an all or nothing proposition. Either there is a duty or there is not. But helping is not binary. You don't either help or not. There is the issue of the degree and cost of help. We also have other obligations, including taking care of ourselves and our family.

There may be an obligation to help the poor, but it is not the only obligation. If it is more efficient to help the poor through the government (due to economies of scale, specialization of labor) as well as more fair (because the burden does not fall only on a small number of people who are especially altruistic) then it could be very well that you think that the poor should be helped either through government or not at all.

I am very busy. I want to help the poor by paying taxes. If I can't help the poor through paying taxes, I am not likely to do much to help them out at all, except on an ad hoc basis. To help the poor efficiently, we need specialists (i.e. social workers) who know how to do it effectively.

Given that government is notoriously inefficient at virtually everything, it isn't likely to better to be better at providing charity. If you want to help the poor, you're probably better off with a randomly chosen non-gov't charity.

I want to help the poor by paying taxes.
You have to pay taxes, or you will be dragged off to jail. And so does everyone else. Whether it's more "fair" to force the less altruistic to do what you think is best is morally dubious.

I'm not going to disagree with the principle that people should give more, including and especially people who feel that many poor people have a basic right to improved circumstances. I have no problem calling someone who gives more than I do to charity a "better person" than I am, any more than I do calling a peace corps or Doctors Without Borders volunteer a better person.

But I think too strongly connecting the overall good associated with charitable giving with redistribution may miss the point. I don't think most supporters of redistribution support "redistribution" per se - I think a fair interpretation of the common position is that they view the provision of a basic level of social services as a moral imperative, and that they view government-backed social programs as necessary to achieving those services, at least as a supplier of last resort and regardless of how inefficient they might be.

My support for higher taxes and further reaching support infrastructure (single payer healthcare, welfare, etc) isn't based on the idea that this is somehow the most efficient or even an efficient way to achieve greater levels of charitable giving. My support for these things is based on my desire to live in a society where anyone (for me, no matter how undeserving or slothful) who shows up gravely wounded on the steps of a hospital can receive medical care without relying on the goodwill of another individual (including my own goodwill). I believe this is the moral obligation we're faced with: as a society, to provide certain services including access to food, shelter, and medical care, to any who ask for it. I feel this as a "civic duty," sort of akin to participating in jury duty or the census - it's necessary for my concept of a fair and just nation.

This, in my head, is distinct from my moral obligation to be charitable. Frankly, I don't doubt that many conservatives feel at least as strong an obligation to be charitable as I do. Certainly, religious people may feel a stronger moral obligation than I, as they feel that obligation comes from explicit order from god, rather than from complicated circuitous arguments about reason. If you start from the premise that every stated fact in the bible is correct, it's much easier to deduce you ought to give to the poor than if you make the same assumption about Rawls, even though I think they both get there in the end.

One question I've asked myself is, is it possible to imagine a world where individuals are so charitable that government efforts to provide basic needs are unnecessary - that if enough people gave enough of their incomes directly to hospitals and food banks and homeless shelters the basic standard of living that I believe we must provide would be available. I think the answer is no: I want to live in a world where individuals are permitted to be capricious, to rescind their gifts at will (perhaps after years of paying the bills for a free hospital a wealthy benefactor would like to buy a yacht and sail the Aegean Sea instead - who am I to judge?). I appreciate that governments in practice are often capricious as well but we're speaking here of moral obligations, and I feel that governments (or, societies) have a moral obligation to consistency that does not apply to individuals. If an individual at 15 drafts a constitution for themselves dictating their acceptable conduct, and hands it to their friends and family, they are permitted to decide in their 30s that they have changed their mind; the American constitution and its associated social contracts are only modifiable according to very particular procedures.

We need a lot more information about charitable givers before we can consider the percentages they give at. If you are living on $16.000/ year, you will necessarily be giving a smaller percentage of your income to ANYthing. If you are poor and black, you are much more likely to be considered a 'liberal' - actually you're probably a democrat. So saying liberals give at a lower rate turns out to mean nothing. Let's have a look at what rate CEOs give at. Certainly it won't be at a rate that hurts, unlike the Baptist family struggling to pay the bills and who still gives to their church.

Why bring morality into this at all?

I am redistributionist on strictly utility grounds. If I give n dollars, then loss of utility from the money is perhaps 1/1,000th the utility I gain from the change in society that occurs from the use of the money elsewhere. If I manage to get a law passed, then a million people have to give n dollars, and the loss of utility from my n is gained a 1,000 fold from the money spent on the rest of society.

Not only that, but it means I don't have to dismiss those who aren't redistributionist as immoral - they simply have a different utility function from me. And since pretty much every Western society has been steadily moving towards more redistribution since forever, I can look forward to my utility increasing ever onward (albeit with odd blips along the way...)

Honestly, I think almost all sides simply use morality as a cover for their utility function.

You might be interested in some of the arguments of the late egalitarian political philosopher G.A. Cohen on this subject, _If You're an Egalitarian, How Come You're So Rich?_ (HUP, 2000).

We've been redistributing income upward for the last 30 years.

Is that morally justified?

I mean can a reverse Robin Hood be anything other than the Sheriff of Nottingham?

Besides when we talk about cancelling the Bush/Obama tax cuts we are only talking about a 4% increase. There is no big moral question here unless, of course, you want to analyze the morality of the upward redistribution of income over the last 30 years. In which case, there is lots to talk about it.

Wait, redistribution is a moral good? I thought it was a marginal utility argument. It is low utility for someone to have all the water. It is low utility for someone to have all the money. Therefore redistribution is "good" until it doesn't make everyone better off. Then it is "bad".

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