Incentives are not coercion

To the editor,

John Hood’s argument against the estate tax’s benefits to nonprofits expresses a moral myopia that cannot distinguish between coercion and incentive [“Estate tax coercive”, 07.03.06].

The estate tax itself is coercive, as all taxes are, and for that matter, as are the traffic laws and building codes and food-handling regulations whose enforcement is funded by those taxes.

With taxes, the force of law compels compliance or the imposition of penalties.

But the government coerces or extorts no one to contribute to charity. It simply offers a benefit of tax-relief to those who choose to do so, as an incentive to motivate taxpayers to support the public good through such contributions.

The “cudgel” raised by the government is for payment of taxes to itself, not for a donation to charity; the charitable donation is one of several routes available around that tax.

The government does not extort support to charities but, in recognition of nonprofits’ non-coerced contributions to the public good, offers a benefit to those who freely choose to support the public good through such organizations.

A “free society where citizens solve social problems not only through government but also by working together in families, neighborhoods, churches, charities, and other private, voluntary organizations” — from the John Locke Foundation founding principles — relies upon the moral formation of individuals capable of distinguishing this from armed robbery.

The true moral question is not whether such donations are motivated by fear, but by selfishness.

I confess that I do not expect our society’s citizens to attain such purity of heart that they would need no encouragement, recognition or incentive to financially support the nonprofits of our communities to the extent needed to sustain the common good among us.

I would have expected that my realism about the self-interested motivation at work in many of our citizens was a conservative perspective shared by Mr. Hood.

The value of the common good achieved and built up by schools, service agencies, congregations and other charitable organizations outweighs the importance of the motivation behind their supporters, at least for the lives of the children, the elderly, the sick and disabled who benefit from their work.

I expected that Mr. Hood, as a conservative, would understand that in an imperfect and self-interested society, prudent laws mobilize even our self-interested motives to serve the common good.

It is entirely appropriate for the government to reduce its coercive tax burden on those who choose to build the common good through contributions to such voluntary charitable programs, as lauded in the John Locke Foundation’s founding principles.

It is utopian or disingenuous to argue that charities could accomplish what they presently do in our society without the incentives provided by government.

It is spurious to describe the offer of a benefit as coercive in our society.

Spencer Bradford, program director, Urban Ministries of Durham, Durham, N.C.

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