Charity vs. Taxation – What is the Difference? [Extended Cut]

Rob Gressis,

Release Date
July 30, 2015


Role of Government

What is the difference between paying a tax and donating to a charity? Many Americans support charities ranging from the American Red Cross to PETA, but is it moral to make others donate to a charity of your choice?

Rob Gressis, a professor of philosophy, went on campus at California State University – Northridge, to ask students two questions on philosophy:
Is it moral to force others to give to the cause of your choice?
Is it moral for the government to force others to give to the cause of your choice?
Do you think it is ethical for individuals or the government to force you to donate to a charity? Watch the video and let us know your thoughts on the relationship between free will, philanthropy, and taxes in the comments.

The Morality of Taxation (video): Eamonn Butler discusses the morality of taxation, which he wrote about for the Taxpayers’ Alliance’s report, The Single Income Tax.
The Interactive Great American Taxing Game: Intro (video): Play the interactive game with your host, Professor Art Carden, and answer the age old question: Who Should Be Taxed?
Is Fixing Inequality A Matter of Justice? (video):This Learn Liberty-sponsored debate presents arguments for and against more government assistance to help the poor in the United States.
What Can Adam Smith Teach Us About Tax Policy (article): Evaluate our current tax system against the famous economist’s four maxims of taxation for public funding.

Prof. Gressis: Hi, I’m Rob Gressis, I’m a Professor of Philosophy at California State University Northbridge, where we are right now. My job is to ask students difficult questions in order to improve their philosophical thinking. Today, the difficult questions I’m going to be asking, along with Learn Liberty, are about morality. Now, I have some predictions about this. I think every student is going to say it’s wrong for an individual to use force to take another individual’s money and give it to a charitable cause of their choice. However, I think they’re all going to say it is okay for the government to do that very same thing. I’m going to ask them, “Why?”. My prediction is that they’re not really going to know why. So here’s the first question, are there any causes, political, charities, anything like that, that you agree with?
Speaker 2: Like AIDS research and cancer research, I think that’s good for the community.
Speaker 3: PETA.
Prof. Gressis: PETA.
Speaker 3: I would donate some money to PETA.
Prof. Gressis: PETA, great.
Speaker 4: I would personally donate some money to my high school.
Speaker 5: Well, I’m in a sorority. So we have national philanthropies that all of our, each separate organizations benefit and ours is Reading is Fundamental.
Speaker 6: I like Habitat for Humanity.
Prof. Gressis: Okay, Habitat for Humanity.
Speaker 6: I think it’s a great cause, really helps people.
Prof. Gressis: Okay great, great answer.
So here’s another simple question. Do you think it is morally okay for you to give your own money or time to Habitat for Humanity?
Speaker 6: Yeah, I think it’s a good cause so I wouldn’t see why not.
Speaker 7: Yes.
Prof. Gressis: Yes. Obviously so. I haven’t had anybody disagree with me about that.
So now here’s another question. Is it moral to force others to give to the cause of your choice?
Speaker 8: No.
Prof. Gressis: No, okay. So we’ll put it “No”. So would it be morally okay if you forced me to give my money or time to this cause?
Speaker 9: Force is a really harsh word.
Prof. Gressis: Yeah, yeah, so you said, let’s say you say, “Do it or else I’ll fine you.”
Speaker 9: No.
Prof. Gressis: Okay, so I guess the answer’s no.
So would it be okay for you to say, stick a gun in my face and say, “Give money to the Red Cross or else I’ll shoot you in the knee.”
Speaker 10: No. No.
Prof. Gressis: Okay, so that’s one kind of force, how about just lightly beating me up?
Speaker 10: No.
Prof. Gressis: Okay, what about just the threat of force?
Speaker 2: No.
Prof. Gressis: Why is not okay for you to force me to give my money to the homeless?
Speaker 11: Out of respect to charity you’ve got to respect people’s wishes, if they want to donate to something then they’re going to donate to something. If they don’t want to donate to something, they don’t have to.
Speaker 12: I certainly believe that there are certain organizations people should give to but then if somebody was given that same power, then they could obviously use that against me and make me donate money to something I clearly don’t, I think it is either bad or something that I wouldn’t agree to.
Prof. Gressis: Go to the next board here and let me just reveal this. Bum, bum, bum.
Is it moral for the government to force others to give to the cause of your choice? So let’s say a cause you really believe in is Women’s Heart Health. Is it moral for the government to use the threat of force, police, IRS, that kind of thing, to force others to give some of their money to Women’s Heart Health?
Speaker 13: No.
Speaker 4: I feel like it’s just like taxes, it’s a civic duty. The fact that we all use roads, the fact that we all use schools and things like public services, and they’re all funded by taxes, I think that it is morally okay to do so.
Prof. Gressis: So, is what makes it morally okay the fact that we all benefit from it?
Speaker 4: Definitely, especially if my choice is Education. If more money is put into Education then we are producing far more successful students which could then benefit us on an economic level.
Prof. Gressis: But what if you just gave me the same argument earlier? What if you said, “Hey, I’m going to force you to give me your money to support my high school.”? After all, we all benefit from my high school, so then you, Raul, tell me Robert, you say, “Hey Robert, give me some money and if you don’t I’ll fine you, take even more of your money and if you don’t pay that fine then I’ll lock you in my basement.” And you say, “Hey, we all benefit from education so it’s okay.”
Speaker 4: I think this kind of goes back to the nature of what a society or even a city is. One person cannot do all of the jobs of everyone else so we kind of have this agreement, this social contract.
Prof. Gressis: And you said no.
Speaker 3: I say no, yeah.
Prof. Gressis: Why is that?
Speaker 3: Initially I said yes at first. I wanted to say yes but then after second thought I realized that if I include myself as being part of the government, which I think most people would say that their choice matters in government, at least in Democratic process, then I didn’t see how I could use force to make others give to any cause of my choosing. Which would be the same …
Prof. Gressis: Same thing as over here, right, where you said no.
Speaker 3: Even though intuitively I wanted to say yes, given what we understand government is, I just couldn’t say yes. I just followed my logic there and brought it over here.
Prof. Gressis: So it’s okay for the government to use force to make people donate to something everybody needs, is it okay for you to use force to get somebody to donate money to something everybody needs? So could you like, beat me up, take my money and then give it to the police and say, “I’m using this money to support you because you protect everybody.”?
Speaker 13: I couldn’t do that. No, I don’t have the morale for that.
Prof. Gressis: How come it’s okay for the government to do it but not you?
Speaker 13: They’re a lot stronger than I am.
Prof. Gressis: Why isn’t it okay for me to force you to give money to the police to help that community? Why is it only okay for the government?
Speaker 7: I do see the immediate conflict.
Prof. Gressis: Right, I mean, here’s one thing I might want to say, it’s okay for the government to use force when it’s okay for you to use force but when it’s not okay for you to use force maybe it’s also not okay for the government to use force.
Speaker 2: I feel like this is kind of like a contract with this country. It’s just kind of like how they’ve built their system. I mean, while others might not do that I think because of that, yes it is fair.
Prof. Gressis: Was this contract something that you and I signed or anything or?
Speaker 2: No, I mean personally, I was born here. So I was just kind of …
Prof. Gressis: Yeah, but did you have any choice about that?
Speaker 2: No.
Prof. Gressis: You can’t not agree to it, right? If you don’t vote you still have to do it. If you vote for the person who loses you still have to do it. So, is it really an agreement if there’s no way to opt out of the agreement?
Speaker 16: I think it does undermine the agreement.
Prof. Gressis: So is it okay for the government ever to use force to get people to give money like taxes or anything like that?
Speaker 10: Well, I don’t think so.
Prof. Gressis: Oh.
Speaker 10: I don’t think so.
Prof. Gressis: Doesn’t that make you like an anarchist or something?
Speaker 10: I mean, everyone’s going to want to do what they want to do. They all have their own opinions but the government just kind of goes with the majority of everyone. It kind of just depends I guess.
Prof. Gressis: So is it okay for the government to force a minority of people to give to a cause the majority likes? Let’s say the majority wants to go to war against Iraq or something like that. Is it okay for the government to say, “Okay, you have to spend tax dollars to support the military so we can do that.”?
Speaker 10: These are hard questions.
Prof. Gressis: I know, I know. I just try to make people think.
Speaker 10: It’s good. I don’t know. That’s kind of how society is now and people are just prone and used to how it works, so I guess …
Prof. Gressis: So it’s okay cuz they’re used to it? Should they say, “You know what, we’re sick of this, we’re going to stop.”?
Speaker 10: Yeah, I think so.
Prof. Gressis: You think they should?
Speaker 10: Yeah.
Prof. Gressis: All right, maybe you are an anarchist. You don’t look like an anarchist but yeah, maybe you are.
Speaker 10: Maybe.
Speaker 9: I think yes because it’s our system , it’s the way things work. If we didn’t have that going on, who knows what we would, how we would get money toward the military, how we would get money toward education. I think we need something in place to make those things happen.
Prof. Gressis: What if it could get down without taxes? Then would it be wrong for them to do it? What if we could have a society where people voluntarily donate money to the military or schools.
Speaker 9: Then they would have no reason to tax us and things like that. But would it be okay?
Prof. Gressis: Yeah, would it be wrong to? They might not have a reason but they might still do it.
Speaker 9: I don’t think it’d be wrong.
Prof. Gressis: Why not?
Speaker 9: It’s cuz it’s not a horrible pressing thing you’re asking people to do.
Prof. Gressis: So what if I said to you, “Give me $50 or else I’ll lock you in my basement.”? $50 isn’t that harmful, so is it okay for me to do that?
Speaker 9: Right, no.
Prof. Gressis: So why is it okay for the government to take $50 and not me?
Speaker 9: Because the consequences aren’t that.
Prof. Gressis: Well no, they are, right?
Speaker 9: I guess jail.
Prof. Gressis: You’ll go to jail if you don’t pay your taxes. It’s not my basement but it’s not necessarily better.
Speaker 9: Yeah, but it’s jail.
Prof. Gressis: Yeah, but my basement’s pretty cool. It’s got like games and everything.
So is it okay for the government to put you in jail if you don’t pay taxes but it’s not okay for me to put you in basement jail?
Speaker 9: Well, if you put it like that it’s not okay for anyone to do it.
Prof. Gressis: Right, but yet, I think most people think it’s okay for the government to do it but not okay for an individual or a mob to do it.
Speaker 9: Yeah, like I said, you have this, because the government has this prestigious look on them, the badge and the …
Prof. Gressis: Yeah, right, they’ve got an authority.
Speaker 9: Exactly, so no one’s like, some people are like, “Screw that, no taxes, they can’t make us do it.” But then other people are like, “This is the way it’s been, you just gotta keep the system flowing.”
Prof. Gressis: It’s almost like this is just what we all tell ourselves.
Speaker 9: Yeah.
Speaker 11: What I think is best for the nation may not be best for the nation. If the majority of the nation feels one way and they vote someone in who feels, is looking out for what most people believe is in their best interest, then I’m all for listening, going with that person.
Prof. Gressis: So let me ask you this question, let’s say you’re hanging out with four other friends and you go to a restaurant and you get a check. So the five of you have a $200 check.
Speaker 11: Okay.
Prof. Gressis: And then the four friends get together and they say, “We all want Chris to pay for the whole thing. It’s in our best interest if we don’t pay at all and Chris pays everything.” Would that make it okay?
Speaker 11: No.
Prof. Gressis: Why not? They voted. There was a majority of them.
Speaker 11: Yeah, but I didn’t vote for them to make that decision for me.
Prof. Gressis: Okay, so what if you don’t vote for the candidate who goes to war and you still have to give your taxes?
Speaker 11: Okay, if my friends were elected by a different body, say we’re a part of a group in whole and just our friends went out to dinner but this whole group that we’re a part of voted them to make decisions for me, then I’m gonna let them make decisions for me. But if we’re just a group of people that no one allotted them to do anything, I’m not going to let them make me pay for anything.
Prof. Gressis: Okay, so what if you knew that your friends were out to get you and so you were trying to tell people, “Don’t vote for these guys.” But they still voted for your friends to hold the office of “Restaurant Decider” and then they made you go to a restaurant that you hated and they made you pay three times what anybody else pays …
Speaker 11: Nobody’s gonna make me do anything.
Prof. Gressis: The government can though.
Speaker 11: Right, but …
Prof. Gressis: And you think it’s okay when the government does it right?
Speaker 11: Right, because I trust our government.
Prof. Gressis: What would happen if it fell apart? Bad stuff?
Speaker 3: Yeah, bad stuff. Government wouldn’t be able to do what it’s supposed to do which is force us.
Prof. Gressis: Force us to do …
Speaker 3: To do certain things.
Prof. Gressis: That we need to do or else we’ll maybe collapse.
Speaker 3: Right.
Prof. Gressis: But even if that’s right, even if it’s true that there are only certain, that there are certain things the government does, and if they don’t do them we collapse. Most of what the government does isn’t bad, is it?
Speaker 3: Right, it would only be a certain number of things to prevent collapse.
Prof. Gressis: Right, so that would only justify a very small number of things.
So this collapse argument, it seems like it’s your big thing.
Speaker 16: Yeah.
Prof. Gressis: And if you could be shown that there’s society that could work pretty well or as well or even better than our current society and that had no taxes, right, everything happened voluntarily …
Speaker 16: Yeah.
Prof. Gressis: Then you’d be on board with that?
Speaker 16: Absolutely.
Prof. Gressis: Do you think most people ever even think of this question?
Speaker 3: No, I don’t think so. I think we just blow right by it and if more people stopped by and saw only this question I think the tacks would be filled.
Prof. Gressis: Yeah, they would all be yeses.
Speaker 3: Yeah.
Prof. Gressis: When you do this question first and then this one things change which is an interesting lesson about the power of philosophy.
Speaker 3: Yes.
Prof. Gressis: So I think we’re gonna leave it there.
So what did we learn today? It seems to me that we’ve learned a couple things. First of all, people value self ownership. They value the fact that they have control over their own lives. They think it’s okay for them to do with their bodies and their property what they want and that it’s not okay for other people to do to them what those other people want. That makes sense. It’s how most people live. It’s how most people want to live. But all of the sudden when you bring up the government, things start to change. As you’ll see, a fair number of people that it was okay for the government to invade your self-ownership in order to further causes it wants to do. But why is this? Why do people think things change when the government gets involved? Does it have to do with philanthropy? Does it have to do with large numbers? Does it have to do with the fact that people claim that they have agreed to it in some way? Then why do they think agreements are these funny things that change when it comes to the government?
This brings up a fundamental question about the proper role of government. What is the government allowed to do? And a very natural answer is that people own themselves and they own their property and the government is not allowed to do things to those people that they don’t let others do. However, when people are actually asked about this, “What is the government allowed to do?” their answers change. They think, “Oh, the government is allowed to tell me what I’m supposed to do with my property, with my body, with these sorts of things.” Why is that? What gives the government the right to do that? Is it the fact that there’s lots of people in it? Is it the fact that it’s going to have some allegedly beneficial effects? Is it the fact that we have all agreed to it, whatever that means? It’s not entirely clear based on talking to the students if there is any general thing that most people mean that allows them to think that the government has this right.
At the end of the day I think people aren’t really sure why they give this answer, but they do give this answer and I think one of the things we should try to figure out is why people are thinking the way they do. In fact, what do you think?