In the weeks before a Dec. 10 state budget deal, Lansing was crowded with special interest lobbyists working to protect the programs from which they benefit. Incongruously, among these were charitable organizations that fill genuine and worthwhile social needs. Lobbying by such groups is the inevitable outcome of a widespread belief that the way to fund charitable programs is through the coercive institutions of government, rather than through voluntary means.

One participant in a protest rally that included members of charitable organizations reportedly expressed the belief in this way: "… the most important job [legislators] have is to provide services." If this understanding of the role of government was the norm among the protesters, they don’t need more government services. They need to enroll in a high school civics course.

Here are just a few of the charitable groups that are unhappy about cuts in taxpayer-funded charity:

  • The Salvation Army. For the first time in recent memory the Salvation Army engaged publicly in political activism, joining other interest groups at a Dec. 4 protest against spending cuts on the steps of the Capitol in Lansing. The organization receives some $24 million per year in state money.

  • The Michigan League for Human Services. A liberal group that lobbies for more welfare and social spending, the League used the Dec. 4 rally to repeat its call for a higher income tax and a resurrected inheritance tax.

  • The Michigan Catholic Conference. This group joined others at the protest in calling for the repeal of a Jan. 1, 2004 income tax cut required under current law, saying the legislature should adopt "a moral budget."

  • Michigan State University Cooperative Agricultural Extension Service and Agricultural Experiment Stations. With hundreds of employees, and offices located in all 83 counties, this organization leaped into action when the governor sent up a trial balloon for the idea of cutting $27.7 million from its current $62 million state grant. Within days defenders generated more than 2,300 communications to the governor and thousands more to legislators, successfully erecting a legislative roadblock to any cuts. Many of the contacts were from 4-H participants.

The spectacle of charitable institutions "protesting" and lobbying for government grants is evidence of how far government has co-opted civil society. Many of the services these groups want to protect are valuable and fill genuine needs that no civilized person would want to see unmet. But government is not the necessary or proper source for the programs to fill those needs. When entrusted with such powers, government inevitably begins to work its own coercive agenda, which is inimical to the voluntary spirit of civil society, which Mackinac Center Director of Fiscal Policy Michael LaFaive has described as "… that network of private institutions, community associations, schools and religious organizations, families and friends and coworkers, and all their voluntary, from-the-heart interactions."

Americans voluntarily gave charitable institutions a record $241 billion in 2002, despite the stock market losing almost 25 percent of its value and the nation being on the cusp of war in Iraq. This giving would doubtless be far greater were it not for the debilitating effects of government spending on people’s ability and desire to contribute.

After all, taxes must first be extracted before government can spend, since government produces nothing and has nothing to give that it has not first taken from somebody else. It’s easy for politicians to dole out government grants to charities, since they are giving away other people’s money.

But the pernicious impact of government social spending goes deeper. The impression that "the problem is being solved" by government causes individuals to disengage or moderate the help they might otherwise provide. In other words, government spending on social needs "displaces" the charitable impulses people would otherwise follow in their own neighborhoods and communities.

This loss is compounded by the fact that government’s impulses can never be purely altruistic. Its tendency to politicize everything it gets its hands on means it can never rightly distinguish between genuine needs and the "wants" of favored constituencies. In the same way that free markets are better than government central planners at selecting which goods and services should be produced in what quantities, so also are the voluntary institutions of civil society better at directing charity where the need is greatest. Needs are bottomless, but resources are not. This means that prioritization — a prudent separating of needs from wants — is not optional, if one’s goal is to meet true needs, and not to curry political favor. It is a vital function that is necessary if we want to live in a just and humane society.

Given these facts and principles, charitable organizations should reconsider engaging in political activities that further reduce the ability and desire of individuals to make voluntary contributions. Expansion of the coercive institutions of political society can only bring about the further dislocation of civil society.

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Note: Jack McHugh is manager of MichiganVotes.org, and legislative analyst for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich.