The State is not a Charity

I reflected a while ago the coalition’s “big society” suggests an ill-founded conflation of the state with a charity. Various policies and opinions since then seem to fit this. This bothers me, as the state really isn’t a charity. Mistaking it for one could cause some damaging decisions to be made.

At first glance, the state looks like a big charity. Taxes are donations, and the charities work is caring for the citizens of said state. Dig a bit deeper though, and cracks emerge. A donation is voluntary, and what it is spent on is at the control of the donor. A taxpayer has little direct say in how much tax they pay, or that tax is spent Thinking of state provision as charity is also unhelpful – whilst charity can be universal, we tend to think of it’s recipients as exceptions from the average. States provisions tend to encompass anyone within certain criteria.

So, where does this confusion manifest? The first example is “big society”; the idea that state services can be replaced with charity, reducing spending and fostering community spirit. It sounds good, and if you think of the services as charities to start with, then it could seem like a clear win; charity via public funds replaced with charity via community. Some may even suggest a higher standard of sevice from enthusiastic volunteers than from box ticking wage slaves.

These services are not charitable though, and there are often major practical and ethical issues with replacing them with a charity. First, reliability. A state service will have some required level to meet, and whilst that can be cut, it is by a political decision that the decision makers can be held accountable for. (Key word there). A charity is voluntary, members can leave, or the group can disband entirely. Where does this leave those using the service? Standards are potentially less enforceable, largely due to the lack of aforementioned accountability.

Allocation of resource is also compromised. The state can prioritise greatest needs (it may not do this well, but it can do it, and we can assess it’s success). Using separate charities prevents this; resource is allocated to those courses that donors and volunteers *think* needs them; or just what interests them.

Ethically, there is a perceptual risk. Those using a charity may be viewed differently than those using a state service. The work of a charity may be seen as less essential, a luxury even, and open to cuts if resources are limited. As noted above, such cuts are unpreventable, and potentially disastrous.

This same attitude extends beyond “bug society” however. A direct example is recent suggestions to allow tax payers to voluntarily pay extra council tax. It sound great in principle; those with spare cash who want to pay more tax can do. The problem is this makes tax a donation, which it really isn’t. Once you accept people choosing to pay more, you allow them to choose to pay less. Trivially as those topping up can choose to stop, but also perceptually. If you make tax even partially voluntary, and more importantly voluntarily for the wealthy, then you leave the expectation of being able to choose to pay less.

Turning tax into charity also loads it with other aspects of charity, such a donor control. If you donate to a charity, you get a say on how that money is spent. Allow voluntary taxation, and the same is not only going to be assumed, but pressured for. Voluntary tax payers could threaten to stop donating if they didn’t like what the money was spent on. Loading control to the wealthy is hardly democratic.

The same perception appears to be part of the problem of “benefit shaming”. This “scrounger” narrative driven by media and politicians alike casts recipients of state aid as dimished by this, and even as hate figures. The confusion with benefits and charity can’t be helping here – needing to rely on charity is conceptually different from using a universal service that one is entitled to. Donor authority also applies – taxpayers believing that having paid the tax gives them authority on how it is spent. This doesn’t just extend to the state (which benefits they feel are worthy), but also the recipients. We have paid for yiur benefits, so you can’t spend them on a widescreen telly. Not that 4:3 tellies are sold anymore.

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One Response to The State is not a Charity

  1. Dean Morrison says:

    Very true EP

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