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Fran Quigley’s recent Commonweal article on philanthropy in America has created a minor buzz since its publication last week. Philanthropy Daily’s own Alex Podkul has already responded in part, indicating a number of practical shortcomings in Quigley’s argument. Still, as Podkul suggests, even given Quigley’s argumentative shortcomings, his ultimate recommendation – ending the charitable tax deduction – is one that needs to be seriously considered, not least of all by defenders of American civil society. Unfortunately, Mr. Quigley’s basic assumptions about civil society, government, and charity serve to obscure, rather than clarify, the reasons for ending the tax deduction.

Quigley’s argument for ending the charitable tax deduction boils down to this: People are in need; charity only serves to assuage feelings of guilt over common complicity in structures of injustice; and so all the energy and money that traditionally gets invested in private philanthropy should instead be entrusted to government for the purposes of reducing inequality and advancing social justice. Aside from its reliance on fuzzy and ideologically charged narratives about income inequality and “structural” economics, Quigley’s piece betrays a particularly nasty view of philanthropists at odds with his own stated ends of justice.

Quigley imports sinister motives to most charitable actions, dismissing them as a way for the rich to ‘turn off the moral safety valve’ in their own lives. Quoting sociologist Janet Poppendieck’s 1998 book Sweet Charity? Quigley blithely asserts that “[t]he growth of kindness and the decline in justice are intimately interrelated.” Moreover, Quigley would have us believe that those causes dear to the rich – like higher education, health research, and the arts – are distractions from the more pressing demands for hunger and homelessness. He then goes on to associate his preferred type of philanthropist with big-government activism: “The people who stock food pantry shelves are likely to be the same people who campaign for federally funded anti-hunger programs.”

This seems unfair at best, vicious at worst. Putting aside the inconvenient fact that pro-government liberals – by their own admission – tend to give less to charity than conservatives, Quigley’s claims are unnecessarily contentious. Quigley wants to build up the safety net for the poorest of the poor, but goes about it by impugning the rich and, subsequently, empowering the government. This zero-sum view of civil-society—that the advantage of the wealthy must be the disadvantage of the poor—relies on largely unargued Marxist assumptions and bald class antagonism. And his willingness to jettison cultural institutions like art museums in favor of food pantries can’t help but seem an arbitrary and brutish swipe against high culture.

Such a view insists that the rich should be happy with their “premium seats at the symphony or named university buildings” and shut up, leaving the important work of helping poor people to government. Meanwhile, the only good philanthropist for Quigley is one who bows to the technocratic agencies—Bill Gates gets a pass since he became a “champion of government-funded health programs and tax equity.” American ingenuity, entrepreneurialism, and neighborly charity be damned—the government can take care of that.

Eliminating the tax deduction is a policy proposal that should be seriously and judiciously considered; there are many plausible advantages, chief among them freeing philanthropists from onerous obligations towards the government and helping to clarify the lines between civil society and the regulatory state. But Quigley’s barely veiled distrust of the rich does not help us gain a clearer picture of the problems plaguing philanthropy today, and his vague faith in government efficiency risks exacerbating precisely the problem the tax deduction introduces: regulatory capture.

Quigley is concerned that we help the poorest of the poor. Fair enough. But his rationale for eliminating the charitable tax deduction leaves precious little space for philanthropists or civil society to participate in this effort aside from ponying up to Uncle Sam. Any sensible defense of eliminating the deduction should be premised on a dynamic vision of a bustling civil society animated by engaged philanthropists, not stale tales of government efficiency and cynical robber barons. Proponents of civil society should offer the right reasons for ending the deduction, lest those like Quigley spoil a good idea with the wrong argument.

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