12/23/2013 12:40 pm ET Updated Feb 22, 2014

The Humbug Factor


A generous scholarship from a Trinity alumna made my college education possible. My folks put a premium on education, but with seven kids and only a very modest income, they needed help with college expenses. I have never forgotten that benefactor, though I never met her, and to this day when I make my own charitable gifts I am mindful of the power of the kindness of strangers to change lives across generations.

Such charity, however, is in serious jeopardy. Like so much else in American life these days, even charitable gifts have become subject to the dyspeptic views of the critical commentariat. Some Scrooges would severely curtail or even eliminate the tax deduction for charitable gifts on the curmudgeonly theory that rich people --- who are some, but not all, of the sources of charity in this country --- should not be able to save some tax dollars by donating money to universities, hospitals, churches, shelters, art museums or operas. President Obama also seems to wear the Scrooge mantle somewhat well, having gone on record as wanting to limit charitable deductions in order to gain more tax revenue.

Charitable gifts? Bah, humbug!

But who really suffers if the politicians and pundits have their way and the law changes to reduce the value of deductions for charitable gifts?

The rich will not suffer. They will simply find other ways to protect their wealth.

Scholarship kids will suffer. Poor children who depend on philanthropy for everything from shoes to housing to breakfast to vaccinations will suffer. Elderly citizens whose lives have run well beyond their savings face devastation if the gift-supported services that care for them dry up. Maybe nobody suffers too much if churches turn down the heat and defer roof repair for a few more years, but the already-meager wages of church-related workers will decline further, forcing people with large hearts, but slim wallets to find other kinds of work. Same with the good people who have turned their backs on the chance to make real money in favor of working in the broad range of charitable social service agencies that make up the support fabric of our nation.

Disdain for philanthropy is no way to run a free country. The charitable impulse has been one of the great distinguishing characteristics of American culture since de Tocqueville observed the "habits of the heart" that fuel the good work in what came to be known as the independent sector, that dimension of our national community that provides for the common good as a moral imperative, a private non-governmental activity rooted in the value of social justice.

The habits of the heart existed long before the Internal Revenue Code. When the federal income tax evolved in the early 20th Century, lawmakers understood that there are certain kinds of private, voluntary charitable activity that are public goods, that relieve the government of the need to perform those services, that should be left free to provide the rich and complex tapestry of human endeavors that the government could never provide on its own.

Absent the work of the independent sector, the government would have to provide the services funded through charitable gifts. Consequently, rather than achieving more tax revenue by reducing the charitable gift deduction, the size of government would have to grow, and the cost of similar services provided by the government would surely also be more expensive than those provided by the moral commitments and sweat equity of the millions of volunteers and modestly compensated workers in the public charities of the nation.

Thanks to remarkable charitable gifts that span the range of millions from wealthy benefactors to a few dollars from individuals who want to share a little bit of what they have with students in need, Trinity today provides massive amounts of scholarship support to students who are just starting out on the journey that I once undertook more than 40 years ago. Scholarships will change their lives, as my own life was permanently changed because a benefactor cared for my education.

Some day I hope that one of my students will sit in my seat in the President's Office, carrying on this great labor of dedication to changing lives through the power of education. But our hope for the continuity of a great educational institution like Trinity will only be possible if our students can continue to receive the support of remarkable donors such as those who have changed lives here throughout the last century.

In this season of giving, let's call out the "humbug factor" that degrades the moral value of charitable gifts as merely self-serving gestures. Rather than continuing their frenzy of fault-finding with even the best of souls, policymakers and pundits should make their own charitable gift in this season by recognizing and thanking those millions of generous donors whose billions of charitable gift dollars ease suffering, make learning possible, provide for our aesthetic enlargement, and yes, repair the church roofs of America.

Particularly as government shrinks and services like food stamps are reduced, the human needs that charitable gifts support grow even greater. Rather than discouraging charitable gifts with short-sighted revenue grabs, our national leaders should celebrate the "habits of the heart" and encourage even greater voluntary giving as a sign of the real strength of our nation's values.