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The Huffington Post is running a series on the charitable giving habits of Republican presidential candidates. The first article provides details of Rick Perry’s charitable giving under the headline “Big on Prayer, Not So Big on Charity,” noting that in many years Perry gave little to charity.

Candidates of both parties have been criticized for parsimonious giving: while the HuffPost piece criticized Republican Perry, Democratic vice-presidential candidate Joe Biden’s charitable giving that averaged merely $369 during the previous decade became a news item in the 2008 presidential race.

Scrutiny of candidates’ character has always been an important part of public assessment of candidates for public office. However, charitable giving has received greater attention since the mid-1970s as an unexpected consequence of the scandals that beset the Nixon Administration.

In late 1973, President Nixon was in the hot seat when his low income tax bill came to press attention; the IRS subsequently reviewed Nixon’s tax returns and imposed a large penalty for unpaid taxes. In the wake of Nixon’s income tax scandal, demand for information about candidates’ financial affairs prompted Gerald Ford to release his 1975 tax return during the 1976 presidential campaign. President Ford’s release of his tax return set a precedent followed ever since by presidential candidates. Candidates’ reports of their charitable giving on their tax returns have made it possible to know exactly how much and to whom candidates have given their financial support.

Although it is only in the last thirty-some years that candidates’ tax records have been available, a charitable or generous disposition has long been understood as an important qualification for public office.

Both Aristotle’s account in the Nicomachean Ethics and Cicero’s account in De Officiis about the qualities needed by men in the ruling classes of Greece and Rome rate liberality as an important virtue for good men and good rulers. Even Machiavelli in his Prince advises those who want to become princes that “it is indeed necessary to be held liberal”—although, being Machiavelli, he adds that a pretence of liberality can be dropped after gaining political power. Tocqueville’s analysis of American character remarks upon how readily democratic citizens lend aid to fellow men in need.

The charitable giving of an aspirant to high office matters because it’s an indication of public spiritedness. Generosity to charities, especially when it long precedes running for office, is taken as a sign that an aspirant to office genuinely wants to serve the community rather than simply to seek power. The HuffPost piece on Perry highlights the fact that Perry gave much less to charities before he became the Texas governor, suggesting that his increased giving has more to do with a Machiavellian wish to seem charitable rather than a sincerely charitable disposition.

The charitable giving of an aspirant to high office matters also because it’s an indication of the candidate’s strongest personal commitments. When Barack Obama was running for the presidency in 2008, his charitable donations to the church led by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright made it difficult for then-candidate Obama to distance himself from controversial statements made by the pastor.

The generosity to charitable causes is surely not the most important qualification for high office. But a candidate’s habits of giving reveal something about his or her character—and the release of candidates’ tax returns gives us an opportunity to consider this aspect of character.

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