Sunday, April 13, 2008

Charity - do you need an incentive?

Ok. I now have a little time up my sleeve.

The move to remove the cap on rebates for charitable donations is great. I'm still putting my own thoughts in order on this so forgive me if this sounds a bit a ramble.

There is at least one ideological reason for applauding this. For those who believe that government should be as small as possible, this provides an opportunity to put money that would have otherwise gone into the general tax purse into a cause they believe is worthwhile directly. I am not entirely of this view but am more than happy to put money into a charity and bypass government.

Now do taxpayers respond to these type of incentives? Will we see an upsurge of donations to charities after this law change? I believe the results will be mixed. Overall, the amount donated to charity is likely to increase but I rather doubt that there will be an immediate increase in the number of people donating. Those who are financially literate and (as a result) also have spare disposable income will avail themselves of the greater rebate. But the vast majority of taxpayers will likely shrug their shoulders and think (if at all) "Why give money to charity when I can spend it on myself?" That has been the way of the past and I see no reason that it would change right now.

There is an underlying problem here: the self versus the collective. I can hear the VRWC jumping up and down in indignation already. I have a foot in both camps: there is an obligation for us as human beings to care not just for those who are our "nearest and dearest" but also for those who live on the other side of the world, whom we may never see or hear of personally. On the other hand, the imposition of this by the collective is contrary to my belief in individual rights.

It may come down to a spiritual/philosophical distinction. As individuals we often ignore the plight of those less well off. Some become activists when they believe and injustice has occurred (and there is nothing wrong with that per se). Yet when people expend time/energy/resources into protests about Tibet or even things closer to home like the Electoral Finance Act, they ignore often more tractable problems. These problems are tractable in the sense that the there are obvious responses required but are usually so big that the individual feels swamped by them. The end result is that people will make token gestures and then say "Leave it to the government."

Part of the reason I like the change in the rebate is that it does send a signal - albeit one that is easy to ignore - that altruism (I rather detest that word but its hard to find an appropriate synonym) will be encouraged by the institution of government. We cannot force people to care for others - after all that is what free will is all about. But we can take baby steps toward creating a society where people naturally are concerned. That is the path to a truly enlightened society. Having some stuffed shirt telling us how to behave is all wrong. Not only does it remove the process by which we come to believe that this is the right thing to do on our own accord but it also sets up a system in which wrong decisions are accepted.

Our fate as a species depends not on what (even enlightened) politicians tell us is the right thing to do but on each and every one us understanding that concern for our fellow man is in fact in our own best interests.


Anonymous said...

Great post! Remember the 'decade of greed'? During the 80's Americans gave more to charity than any other time. If govt always steps up to the plate people are inclined to say "I gave at the office".

Lucy said...

Couldn't agree more. Sometimes it is too easy to look the other way, shrugg our shoulders and expect someone else to put in. There are a great many worthy charities and it is easy to get swamped by them so choose the ones you really believe in and go with them.