The costs of democracy

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Andrew Coyne believes that a robust democracy of many voices and interests should not be promoted at the taxpayers’ expense.

To be more explicit, he states in an article today that Harper’s crackdown on charitable groups for “political activity” is warranted, and that subsidies for political parties are wrong as well. Why should a taxpayer be forced to fund, in one way or another, views with which he or she disagrees?

Under current law, charities are forbidden from overtly partisan advocacy of any kind. They are, however, permitted to devote up to 10% (as a general rule: there are higher limits for smaller charities) of their resources, financial or otherwise, to more broadly defined “political activities” — for example, advocating that a particular law should be “retained, opposed, or changed,” or some other equally explicit “call to political action.”

It’s a safe bet that a good many of the more well-known advocacy groups in the country, including the various think thanks of the left and right, are operating in excess of this standard, and have been for years. As long as it’s even-handed about it, I see nothing wrong with simply enforcing the law, as the government proposes. Indeed, I’d go further. Why should any charity be permitted to spend any money on advocacy of any kind?

Setting aside the fact that Coyne advances no evidence of anyone’s operations being in excess of the law, it might be noted that similar arguments have been made about the CBC, notably by its competitors. But why stop there? Without too much difficulty such arguments can be applied to almost any government expenditure on anything. Why should I have to pay for the F-35s? Why must I support the risible Office of Religious Freedom on my nickel?

Indeed, it’s doubtful that my taxes overall are being spent by the Harper government in accordance with my own views and wishes. But I pay them anyway: motivated not only by the penalties for refusal but because they are part of the social contract. We pay for services, and we supposedly have a democratic system in which leaders are held accountable for their delivery. If the latter these days is a debatable question in itself, the position Coyne has taken is a principled one that would apply regardless of the government in power.

But even if it were possible to build a wall around charities and political subsidies to prevent a libertarian voluntarism from being extended to its logical limit, there are two fundamental questions at issue here.

First, democracy is healthiest when the citizenry is actively engaged—few would disagree with that proposition. But in a large, spread-out country of many different regions like Canada, the ability to engage poses serious challenges.

In this respect, taxes and subsidies that facilitate vigorous public discussion from many different perspectives are money well spent. This is certainly the case with political donations, and with charities that engage in advocacy. With respect to the latter, I would agree that there should be limits, although Coyne’s hope that the Harper government will be “even-handed” about this is a pious prayer.

But Coyne takes the matter further. He wants nothing less than the end of tax breaks for charities, period:

[They] might be okay where the cause in question is universally agreed to be advancing the public good. But the very nature of advocacy implies the opposite. You’re entering into an argument, and if you’re a registered charity, you’re doing so on my dime. [emphasis added]

Indeed, a charity’s whole purpose, whether or not it engages in advocacy, may be repugnant to one corner of opinion or the other. In which case, why should they be forced to fund it? If it’s wrong to conscript all taxpayers to fund political parties (and it is wrong, whether via explicit subsidy or the extraordinarily generous tax credit on political contributions), it is no less wrong to conscript them in support of the 85,000 charities (and counting) on the Canada Revenue Agency’s list.

This goes well beyond a discussion of engagement and democracy, to a second basic principle, and here I would offer Coyne a fair trade. Given that charities do essential work that the government does not fund—feeding and clothing the poor, defending the environment, offering training to new immigrants, etc., etc.—let the government take over those functions directly rather than indirectly, as arguably it should.

Advocacy, which as already noted enhances the democratic process, could be moved onto the national stage by subsidizing representative advisory groups, such as the recently-disbanded National Council of Welfare and the National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy.

There is only one taxpayer. How my money gets to those in need is not my concern. But the latter do require, and must have, the assistance of the more fortunate: that, too, is part of our social contract. Proposing measures that would in practice simply reduce charitable revenues is inimical to the Canada that most of us believe in.

Should taxpayers collectively bear the cost of promoting democracy and the good health of the body politic? The floor is open.


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This page contains a single entry by Dr.Dawg published on May 5, 2012 10:18 AM.

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