The invaluable Ezra Klein has a typically excellent post today, skewering Cato’s David Boaz for–once again–suggesting that if only liberals would stop progressive taxation, then conservatives and the wealthy would make up the difference through private charity.
This is one of those conservative zombies: it just won’t die, no matter how many times you try to drive stakes through it with facts. Klein does about as good a job as you can with a short post.
I can add, however, a thought experiment: remember Hands Across America? That was the big, nationwide movement for people all over America to, well, hold hands to remember the homeless. On May 25, 1986, five million people held hands over more than 4,000 miles, and they contributed money to homelessness and hunger organizations as part of the effort. Think of it as a standing walk-a-thon. It was quite a big deal: it was built up in the media for weeks. People had parties in their houses. Corporations donated millions. And in all, it was an amazing take, for one day: $20 million dollars.
Now imagine if we did Hands Across America every day of the year, every year. Impossible? Of course, but we’re in Cato fantasyland here. If we replicated this extraordinary civic effort every day, including holidays, weekends and Super Bowl Sunday, then it would raise annually somewhere around $7.3 billion.
In other words, it would raise less than half of the annual federal budget for the TANF program (what replaced AFDC), which itself was always tiny. It wouldn’t come close to matching Head Start, job training, Food Stamps, WIC, child care, child welfare, affordable housing, and of course Medicaid. It wouldn’t even be close to a drop in the bucket. And that’s making the heroic assumption that we could even do it.
So consider me skeptical that the private sector will make up the difference. It’s an appealing soundbite, a distant cousin of “cutting taxes will allow us to grow out of the deficit.” There is such a thing as adult libertarianism–a philosophy that candidly acknowledges the severe deprivation that will occur in the severe diminution of government, and advocates it nevertheless. The charity myth isn’t it.