The spirit of volunteerism and charitable giving has been a hallmark of American society since our founding. It was one of the distinguishing American "habits of the heart" identified by Alexis de Tocqueville in his important 19th century study "Democracy in America."
As Tocqueville, an observant French scholar, traveled throughout America in the 1830s, he was amazed to discover how well and how regularly Americans used private associations to address their problems and social ills.
This habit of voluntarily combining resources to form associations, societies and congregations was not just something Tocqueville found exceptional — he also considered it one of the important safeguards against the temptation of "soft despotism," i.e., ceding power to an administrative state in "the conduct of small affairs, where plain common sense is enough."
One can't help but wonder what Tocqueville would think of the habits of the American heart in the second decade of the 21st century, especially as reflected in our contemporary balance between civil society and government.
By almost any measure, American's volunteerism and charity surpass anything found in the rest of the world. But there is concern about the resilience of charity and charitable giving as our economy tentatively emerges from a deep and long recession
This last week, the Giving USA Foundation and the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University released an annual report on American philanthropy that tried hard to be upbeat. According to their estimates, overall charitable giving rose in 2010 by 2.1 percent to reach a total of $290.9 billion. But adjusting for inflation, overall giving was essentially flat. And in some sectors, such as religion, health and human services, giving actually declined.
Adjusting for inflation, the report notes that "total giving exceeded $280 billion a year every year for the past decade and surpassed $290 billion in six of the last seven years."
But the Giving USA estimates — relied on heavily by the nonprofit sector to help gauge fundraising expectations — have perhaps been too rosy. Their previous estimates indicated that charitable giving dipped 2.4 percent in 2008 and held steady in 2009. But recently released Internal Revenue Service figures now show charitable giving declining about 20 percent during that period.
Regardless of whose analysis is most accurate, American philanthropy is either shrinking or essentially stagnant at precisely the time when, in theory, charitable support is needed most. And it appears that the ready substitute for private charitable services is a growing administrative state. Although hundreds of billions in magnitude, private giving is less than what Americans now pay on interest for federal, state and local government debt.
In coming weeks, some budget negotiators appear ready to put various plans on the table to enhance tax revenues through the elimination of deductions and credits. In 2009, President Barack Obama floated a plan to limit the tax deductibility of charitable contributions. We trust that idea, which fared poorly then, will not reappear this year.
The associational freedom, volunteerism and charity that help to address social needs precede, both historically and conceptually, a tax-funded administrative state attempting to do similar things. While we generally support tax reforms that scrape away many of the encrusted exceptions that have attached themselves to our tax code over the years, the charitable tax deduction is not one of them. The exceptional habit of the American heart to voluntarily pool resources to solve problems deserves renewed attention and care, not an unprecedented tax.