Last week, I had the fortunate opportunity to hear two presentations by (and briefly meet) Michael Sandel, a leading political theorist and, less magnanimously, a substantial influence on my undergraduate thesis. While a review of his latest book, the New York Times bestselling Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?, will have to wait until I finish Justice Breyer’s book, I wanted to make a timely note of the experience of hearing and meeting Sandel.
The morning lecture, thoroughly covered by The Chautauquan Daily, was a traditional presentation in which Sandel familiarized the audience with his approach to public discourse. Sandel carries the mantle of Aristotelian civic republicanism into this late-modern age, arguing that deliberation over the good life, morality, and spirituality, is an appropriate and necessary part of our public discourse. Rather than restraining public debate to a narrow set of political values and leaving things like religion and morality to the private sphere, Sandel believes– contrary to the prevailing view– that people should not have to hold back parts of themselves when participating in public discourse. While I’m not sure he’s gone so far as to say this outright, I think his approach rejects the public-private division contemporary liberal society mandates, instead advocating a broad spectrum of public life in which the public-private deliberative division melts away.
The afternoon lecture, by contrast, was styled after one of his interactive classroom presentations, in which he engaged the audience on questions of policy. Did the handicapped golfer, Casey Martin, have a right to use a cart in PGA events? Should state governments limit marriage to heterosexual couples?
At the end, he took audience questions, the last of which presented a good opportunity to explain his approach. The question came from a self-described libertarian, who told Sandel that he didn’t think the government had any business even answering the questions Sandel posed. The questioner said that the PGA, a private organization, should be able to include or exclude whomever it wants, and the government has no authority to say otherwise. As for state governments, the questioner explained, they should not be regulating activities, such as marriage, between consenting adults.
Sandel used this opportunity to “test” the questioner to see if he really would adhere to a libertarian viewpoint as applied to more controversial facts. For example, would the questioner allow the PGA to restrict its events to white golfers? The questioner said he would boycott the events, but the PGA could do so. Sandel also inquired of the questioner’s acceptance of various extreme activities between consenting adults, but the questioner stood by his position. Apparently satisfied that the questioner was, in fact, a true libertarian, Sandel concluded the presentation without further substantive comment.
This exchange was a missed opportunity for Sandel. Rather than defend his view, or at least helpfully contrast it with the libertarian perspective for the attentive audience, Sandel did little more than put the questioner through the paces of a libertarian litmus test. What’s unfortunate is that he had a good response. In his 1996 book Democracy’s Discontent, Sandel wrote about the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, when the two politicians debated slavery and other issues. Stephen Douglas supported a liberal position: because people disagreed as to the morality of slavery, the federal government ought to maintain a neutral position and allow the states and territories to decide the question for themselves. Abraham Lincoln, on the other hand, took a position in line with Sandel’s civic republican view and in opposition to slavery on moral grounds, observing that anyone can advocate political neutrality “who does not see anything wrong in slavery, but no man can logically say it who does see a wrong in it; because no man can logically say he doesn’t care whether a wrong is voted up or voted down.” Michael Sandel, Democracy’s Discontent 22 (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1996).
Lincoln’s view is a direct challenge to those like the questioner, who say that while they personally (morally) oppose a particular activity, the best public policy respecting it is one of neutrality. This is the query Sandel should have put before his libertarian questioner.
Happy 235th, America.
The disconnect between the principles and practices of the new wave of ostensibly fiscally conservative politicians may not be a unique feature of those serving on the federal level. As I previously noted, U.S. House Republicans, behind the fiscal leadership of Rep. Paul Ryan, may be a bit mixed up when it comes to the privatization of healthcare benefits. The situation at the state level, where Michigan legislators, with the strong support of Governor Rick Snyder, have eliminated state income tax credits for charitable donations, is a bit more conceptually nuanced.
Earlier this month, the Flint Journal reported on the policy change:
As part of a massive tax reform bill signed into law last month, all state income tax credits for charitable donations were eliminated to help close Michigan’s $1.5 billion budget deficit.
The tax measure is expected to save the state $35 million or more a year. . . .
In 2009, the $35 million the state gave back for tax credits leveraged nearly $100 million in charitable giving to nonprofits.
Kristin Longley, “Michigan income tax credits for donating to charities end next year,” Flint Journal (June 13, 2011). In eliminating the tax credit, Snyder “relied on research that showed charitable giving doesn’t necessarily hinge on a tax credit, but rather a personal cause or inclination toward generosity.” Id.
As best I can tell, economists of all stripes probably would agree that, as a general policy matter, eliminating tax credits is good because a broader tax base taxed at a lower rate is preferable and less distorionary, and because “tax credits,” more properly termed “tax expenditures,” are a less transparent form of government spending. (For more on these ideas, see my earlier comment here.)
By eliminating tax credits, Snyder is trimming government spending, an unobjectionable outcome for fiscal conservatives. Charitable donations may present a special case, however, for the fiscally conservative view that government should tax less so that it spends less in order to stay out of the way of the private sector, which, the view holds, can provide services more effectively and efficiently. A perhaps less frequently enunciated, but necessary tenet of this view is that citizens freeing themselves from the burden of compulsory wealth redistribution (i.e., taxes to fund social services) must personally shoulder the burden of private charity. To do otherwise (just as to privatize services even where privatization will lead to less effective and more inefficient provision of those services) is simple greed, and greed is not the basis of fiscal conservatism or any other viable political theory.
Does elimination of the charitable donation tax credit do more to benefit the provision of private charity by allowing taxpayers to hold more money for that purpose, rather than filter it through the governing apparatus, or does maintaining the credit do more to benefit the provision of private charity by (imperfectly) removing money from the public taxing-and-spending cycle funds that no longer need to be used for publicly provided services? (At the very least, there is an empirical tax question here that is beyond my grasp: does the state net more money by eliminating the tax credit that it can turn around and spend on public services, do taxpayers end up with more in their pockets for private charity under the broad-base/low-rate tax structure, or is the best result an appropriately valued tax credit combined with a decrease in public spending on services?)
In debating the elimination of the credit, the two sides seem to be talking slightly past each other. The Governor’s view, in part, is that elimination of the credit is acceptable because the credit “doesn’t necessarily” provide a real incentive for giving– people decide to give based on other reasons. Proponents of the credit, though speaking with multiple voices, seem to see the credit as part incentive (to do good), part reward (for having done good), and part compromise (by freeing more assets for private use without evaporating resources for public services). In other words, the credit is more than an incentive, and saying that it may not function as one is not a complete justification for its elimination.
State-level politicians may simply be choosing among competing fiscally conservative values in this case, rather than being (apparently) ignorant of them, as in the federal-level situation I previously described. I do find merit in the broad push to eliminate tax expenditures, but I think it is worth asking whether charity presents a special case worthy of exceptional treatment.
Phish – “Backwards Down the Number Line,” Joy (2009)