As a society, we’ve committed to certain government roles and responsibilities like national defense, tax collection, business regulation, and administration of justice. Our commitments, however, to a postal system, transportation and communications networks, and medical and scientific research vary with the politics of each administration.
On the socioeconomic side, our constitution mandates a tax-funded, egalitarian public education system. We’ve also agreed to allocate tax dollars to alleviate extremes of poverty and administer programs to help people become self-sufficient. We’re stumbling slowly towards a national healthcare system.
Government sets certain socio-economic goals and funds their achievement most equitably through the democratic process. Examples include public education, Head Start,SNAP, Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare.
The business sector contributes not only by its maintenance of a vigorous and humane employment economy, but also by its charitable endeavors.
The ability of the mission-driven, non-profit sector to have an impact may be limited by the number of those with money to give or individual interests.
Consider for example, a college president’s dilemma when an alum offers a new gym, even though the college already has one. Does the president acknowledge the donor’s generosity but ask for what his or her college may really need – perhaps endowed teaching positions, and so declines the gift along with its future cost burden?
Grant-making and donation are often tied to the interests of the foundation, donor, or church, whereas true philanthropy asks first what is needed. To this end, community foundations and United Ways solicit and aggregate contributions from businesses and individuals and re-grant them based on rigorous community needs assessments and measurable beneficial outcomes.
Of greater concern right now however, is pressure exerted by special-interest groups trying to reduce the size of government and requisite taxes by shifting traditional government roles and responsibilities onto the non-profit or business sectors. It is a defensible conservative philosophy to believe that churches, foundations, philanthropists and business can better achieve socio-economic goals than government, but this differs from simply advocating for lower taxes at the expense of strong communities and equal opportunity – which carries the risk of unwinding a democratically evolved commitment to achieve worthy social, economic, educational, cultural, and environmental objectives. Any changes of this kind must be rational and explicit – in terms of both motive and outcome.
Robert Reich has pointed out the danger in the rise of public school foundations that enable rich communities to fund public schools not with tax dollars, but with tax deductible donations. Only the wealthy can afford this kind of tax-exempt philanthropy. Their collective tax burden is lowered but what becomes of the schools in districts that have no such private wealth and an anemic tax base?
A better goal is to maintain a reasonably taxed society with healthy communities supported by equitably funded social and educational services with an inherent culture of assessment, accountability, and transparency – not just shuffling off our goals onto other sectors.