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The Chronicle of Philanthropy has just published a major study on charitable giving. The study tends to reaffirm a commonplace—that religious people (or at least people who live in regions where religion plays a larger role in people’s lives) are more generous. Thus folks in the more religious South give more than folks in less religious New England (5.2% vs. 4%).  That religion accounts for the lion’s share of that difference is clear, for by itself religious giving accounts for 4.3% of Southern income, as opposed to only 2.6% of New Englanders’ income.

In an article on this study in the Huffington Post, prominent sociologist Alan Wolfe is paraphrased and quoted to the following effect:

[I]t’s wrong to link a state’s religious makeup with its generosity. People in less religious states are giving in a different way by being more willing to pay higher taxes so the government can equitably distribute superior benefits, Wolfe said. And the distribution is based purely on need, rather than religious affiliation or other variables, said Wolfe, also head of the college’s Boisi Center for Religion and Public Life.

Wolfe said people in less religious states “view the tax money they’re paying not as something that’s forced upon them, but as a recognition that they belong with everyone else, that they’re citizens in the common good. . . . I think people here believe that when they pay their taxes, they’re being altruistic.”

I wonder if Wolfe has any actual evidence for his account of people’s opinions regarding their taxes. I especially wonder if—given the distribution of the tax burden—there’s much connection at all between the level of taxes people pay and the kind of support for a higher tax burden that he alleges.

But even if I were to grant his dubious claim that people in high tax states actually “altruisitically” support that level of taxation, I would challenge his claim that the government distribution of  benefits is “equitable,” based purely upon need. Is Wolfe so naive as to believe that those who are politically connected (campaign donors, public employees’ unions) don’t get more than their “fair share” of public money?

Our system of government arguably encourages that kind of behavior. One alternative would be to have a philosopher-king like Professor Wolfe distribute benefits in accordance with his disinterested view of what’s right.  Another would be to encourage a plurality of different sources of giving, each addressing the needs brought home to it by those who appeal to their sense of what’s just or appropriate. I know which I would choose.

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