Ending Charitable Deductions to Feed the Leviathan State

Indiana University professor Fran Quigley urges, in the progressive Catholic magazine Commonwealan end to deductibility of charitable contributions against federal income taxes. His argument rests primarily upon the twin beliefs that the U.S. social safety net is too thin and that lost revenues from charitable contribution deductibility would be better spent on governmental social welfare programs. His arguments, while couched in Catholic social justice language, pay virtually no attention to a key principle of Catholic social teaching: the principle of subsidiarity. Furthermore, he has a proclivity to regard as matters of “justice” programs that can also arguably be deemed discretionary entitlements.

To his credit, Quigley recognizes that, in modern societies, problems can become so large that they defy ready solutions by smaller actors like individual charities. But when applying the principle of subsidiarity, the onus probandi should rest on those who would entrust a problem to a higher level of responsibility. In the American system, it would seem that the highest burden of proof rests on those who would federalize an issue.

While the framers of the Constitution were not Catholics and worked out of philosophical systems (mostly social contract theory) alien to the classical and Catholic views of man and society, in one sense the Constitution itself embodies the principle of subsidiarity: Article I, section 8 specifically enumerates and limits Congressional (and, by extension, federal) power. The framers, wary of the corruptive influence of power, put limits on the spheres in which the federal government was competent.

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American history has been rife, however, with examples of politicians seeking creative ways to circumvent those limits (everything from trying to treat “promoting the general welfare” as a vehicle to end run other limits to fanciful notions of “interstate commerce” in which—unfortunately—the Supreme Court has from time to time acquiesced). But, by and large, there have always been those committed to Constitutional fidelity calling us back to a limited vision of federal power. Under Article I, section 8, there are whole swaths of life—education or health policy, for example—from which the federal government should withdraw for lack of any Constitutional competence to be interfering there in the first place.

By insisting on driving down responsibility and decision-making to the lowest possible levels, the principle of subsidiarity is in fact necessary to social justice. By preserving room for other responsible actors, subsidiarity protects the cardinal fact of freedom by allowing the buffering function of a dynamic civil society to run interference between the person and the Leviathan State. As philosopher Jacques Maritain once pointed out, the absence of intermediary structures exposes the person to stand alone before the Minotaur State. If self-styled progressive thought is constantly fearful of pitting the person against the “corporation” or “business,” convinced that the deck is stacked against him, how much more should it realize that the deck is stacked when the person faces the ever-more-omnicompetent Nanny State? It’s a lot easier to change employers than change countries.

This imbalance is particularly threatening in an American context, where legal trends have progressively eroded and sidelined any “society” having a moral vision different from that of a highly atomized individual. Consider, for example, the effort to force employers to violate their consciences by having to pay for abortifacients under Obamacare. The vision promoted by the latter’s votaries sees only two actors: the individual and the policy-making state. Society—which includes other employers—is deprived of any right to articulate and act upon other values, having been co-opted by the State. Consider, likewise, the efforts of some governments to make their redefinitions of “marriage”—which ignore sexual differentiation—normative: the result has been to drive various private civil society actors off the social stage, e.g., Catholic adoption agencies.

When, in an American context, what Mary Ann Glendon called “rights talk” is married to government policy making, overall freedom is diminished by the creation of a naked public square—one denuded not just of religion but of any other actor than the policy-making State and those favored groups that serve the axiological plat du jour. Michael Hanby, in the February 2015 issue of First Things, correctly describes the ensuing situation: “But insofar as liberal freedom is atomistic and precludes the claims of others on the property that is my person, the state tasked with securing this liberty will exist to protect me from God’s commandments, the demands of other persons, so-called intermediary institutions and, ultimately, even nature itself.”   But that is the society we get when we devalue the principle of subsidiarity. And that is the ultimate question of social justice.

Federal policy making also tends to limit the range of priorities: a given administration has its priorities and its darlings, and those tend to take over the stage. By putting more actors on stage, the principle of subsidiarity necessarily broadens and diversifies the range of social justice and charitable programs: individual actors, using their money, provide the fertilizer to make “a thousand flowers bloom.” Quigley, however, seems rather to want to apply pesticide, complaining that private charity diverts money to charities that—well, he doesn’t think important. “… [H]igh-income donors have demonstrated a preference for donating to higher education, health research, and the arts” in contrast to “proven government-assistance programs like food stamps, unemployment compensation, and housing assistance.”

While there are all sorts of short-funded projects in the world, Quigley never really explains why his ideas of priority funding should become standard for us all. Government established priorities do not necessarily represent Solon-like, rationally-established priorities; rather, they are often the result of politically driven give-and-take horse trading which, in the American system, is what politics is supposed to do—deal with competing and conflicting interests. Given that reality, and the fact that tax dollars are first of all the taxpayer’s money, I would defer to the taxpayer on his choice of where charitably to put his money in support of social benefit, and challenge Quigley to tell us why, in the name of the principle of subsidiarity, that choice should be trumped by the long arm of the IRS.

Perhaps, in the end, there is a reason to change the current federal charitable deduction, especially since it is now unavailable to taxpayers who do not itemize. I am unwilling, however, to go that route until the problems posed by Quigley’s underlying devaluation of subsidiarity are examined.

Quigley, in defending the repeal of charitable deductibility, admits “it would be naïve to pretend that eliminating the deduction would have no impact on the nonprofit sector, including some charities associated with the Catholic faith.” But he’s willing to crack those eggs to make his omelet: “… as long as it meant more money for public programs that help the poor, it would be worth the tradeoff” in the name of “justice.” Considering both a broader notion of justice than just “more money for the poor” and the fact that the government’s track record in being economically charitable is, to put it charitably, paltry, I suggest the tradeoff is hardly worth the bargain.

(Photo Credit: AFP photo / Jim Watson)


  • John M. Grondelski

    John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is a former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are his own.

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