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.
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
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.
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.
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.