THE BLOG
05/12/2010 04:40 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Questioning Your "Compassionate" Politics

"You oppose Medicaid and government-run schools? You're heartless and lack compassion."  If you have ever made this accusation, even tacitly, I invite you to reconsider the government policies you support.

Why does being compassionate mean supporting government-run schools and health plans? This makes little sense if you view these programs as government-run charities. Would you agree to perpetually donate a portion of your monthly income to the same charity -  regardless of its effectiveness?  If the charity is doing a lousy job, wouldn't you want the freedom to find a better one?

By supporting government-run charities like Medicaid and tax-funded schools, you relinquish this freedom. You could try to improve their performance through the political process. But this is grossly inefficient and ineffective compared to using on-line charity rating services to find a charity that deserves your donations.

Many rightly oppose paying taxes to support a faith-based charity, as the charity's fundamental beliefs conflict with your own. But shouldn't your objection also apply when you disapprove of a charity's methods or performance?

Government-run charity is also mandatory charity. If you support mandatory charity, what do you authorize government to do to those who peacefully refuse to cooperate?  Supporting mandatory charity is like donating other people's money, but in your name. How is this compassionate?

Compassion is more compatible with several alternatives to government-run programs, ranging from vouchers, to charity tax credits, to doing away with mandatory charity altogether.

If supporting a voucher program seems to go against your beliefs, note that Democrats expanded a type of voucher program last year: food stamps.  I don't hear the left advocating that government-run grocery stores replace these food vouchers. Instead, qualifying low-income people receive food vouchers redeemable at retailers ranging from Wal-mart to Whole Foods.

Voucher recipients are empowered to choose among retailers who compete for their business.  Milton Friedman calls this subsidizing the consumer, not the producer. If vouchers are acceptable for food, why are they objectionable for medical insurance and education?

Some support only "public school choice." This is equivalent to reforming food stamps so they are redeemable only at government-controlled "public" supermarkets. Would this be an improvement?

One problem with vouchers it that they could expand political control over education and insurance. Politicians could dictate that schools and health plans satisfy certain conditions to be voucher-eligible. Some of politicians may like this. Also, some taxpayers understandably don't want their money sent to religious schools.

Expanding political influence over private organizations is a legitimate danger of vouchers. This is one reason charity tax credits are superior to vouchers.  With charity tax credits, politicians would still mandate how much taxpayers must donate to charity. But taxpayers would be able to choose the charity. Say you donate to a qualified scholarship fund. You would owe a dollar less in taxes, and the comparable government program - a local tax-funded school - would lose that dollar in tax revenue.

With charity tax credits, private organizations are less vulnerable to political meddling than with vouchers, as taxpayers are no longer forced to fund programs or charities they find objectionable. Hence, charity tax credits support tolerance in a way that vouchers and government programs do not.

Charity tax credits also promote fairness.  Every dollar taxpayers must "donate" to government charities is one less dollar for voluntary charities. Is this fair?  Increased taxes to fund the welfare state have historically crowded out private donations. Why not let each taxpayer choose the charity?

Charity tax credits allow government programs like government schools and Medicaid to compete on a more level playing field with non-government charities. Government charities would be more accountable to taxpayers, as private charities are currently accountable to donors. Poor performance risks losing donations.

With charity tax credits, we would be more engaged and invested in helping others effectively. Empowered to choice, we each can use websites such as Charity Navigator, Charity Watch, or the Wise Giving Alliance to find an effective charity that reflects our personal values and priorities.

Some might object that, with any sort of mandatory charity, politicians still get to control what "politically correct" charity is.  Spending hours a week volunteering with Big Brothers Big Sisters or helping a disabled friend or family member might be rewarding, but you'd get no tax benefit. Politicians can even criminalize charity. For example, ABC News reported that a stay-at-home mom's "act of charity could possibly land her in jail" because it qualifies as "illegal child care."  Nevertheless, a tax credit or voucher remains a dramatic improvement over the status quo.

True compassion begins with respecting each person's right to act according to his own judgment and through voluntary exchanges with others. Compassion is incompatible with using others as means to your ends, as if they were tools, rather than respecting them as individuals with rights.

It's time to reevaluate compassion in politics. Donating to government charities regardless of their performance destroys their accountability and your ability to do good. Mandatory charity lacks empathy for other people's values and priorities. If you must support mandatory charity, at least let taxpayers choose the charity. If this is still intolerable, do consider the merits of vouchers - if they work for food, why not education and health care?