As with any administration, tax and spending policies are telling indicators of priorities. President Obama's plan to reduce the tax incentive for giving to churches and charities, while massively increasing spending on bureaucracies, indicates that civil society is to be weakened and bureaucracy is to be strengthened.
Asked whether he thought the tax policy would hurt charities, the President insisted that it would not. Harvard professor Martin Feldstein disagrees, estimating that Obama's proposal will result in a loss of $7 billion a year to churches and charities.
William Daroff, vice president of public policy and director of the United Jewish Communities, says that with "a huge increase in the demand for social services, and a simultaneous decrease in resources to fund programs, governmental policy should be to incentivize charitable donations--not to create more reasons for donors to forgo making contributions."
The President says he thinks "it is a realistic way for us to raise some revenue from people who've benefited enormously over the last several years."
It would seem that the President views churches and charities that heavily rely on the generosity of donors as front operations whose sole purpose is to shield wealthy donors from paying their fair share of taxes--money Obama says Washington bureaucrats need more.
While $7 billion can do enormous good in the stewardship of churches and charities, it is a pittance in the federal budget.
If you are keeping track, the stimulus spending is currently more than $800 billion. AIG has received $180.5 billion in taxpayer money so far. The U.S. share of the global bailout agreed to at the recent G20 meeting in London will likely be hundreds of billions of dollars. The Obama bureaucratic health proposal starts at $600 billion, and the energy tax related to cap and trade will be much more than that.
So why target churches and charities?
Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in Democracy in America that "among democratic nations the notion of government naturally presents itself to the mind under the form of a sole and central power, and that the notion of intermediate powers is not familiar to them."
That is, powerful centralized governments and the politicians who run them have a propensity to operate from the premise that if government is not providing a service, then the service is not being provided at all.
Unlike churches and charities, which largely rely on voluntary contributions, the federal government has the authority to confiscate earnings it sees fit. Whether you agreed with the 90 percent tax directed specifically at AIG employees who received retention bonuses or not, it perfectly demonstrated the government's power. Targeting churches and charities is no different.
These comparatively small but abundant charitable institutions are providing services that some politicians feel rightfully belong to the federal government. By diminishing churches and charities, the administration fulfills a self-preserving objective of consolidating federal power by creating more taxpayer-funded programs to provide the services churches and charities are currently providing.
Since Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society, politicians have systematically diminished the intermediating powers of churches and charities that de Tocqueville thought were essential to democracy. Cutting the incentives to give would seem to be exactly the wrong policy--that is, unless the intention was to deliberately weaken them further.
And so it is. Where individual initiative to provide a service for the public good, whether for his country or community, can simply be overrun by the federal government's natural inclination to expand, the ability for Americans to serve others without government interference will diminish precipitously. Whether intentional or not (and we suspect it is intentional), instituting policies so that intermediating institutions that feed the hungry, thwart human trafficking, care for the homeless, break the cycles of addiction, research cures for disease, minister to prisoners, and build homes to restore lives are systematically weakened undermines civil society in ways that are incompatible with our country's survival.
If churches and charities do not stand in that gap, the governmental bureaucracies will, however inadequately, fill it, thus reducing citizens in need to clients who fill political objectives.
In 1996, welfare reform was an enormous achievement, not so much for the billions of dollars it saved but for the lives it renewed. The cultural shift from dependency to responsibility restored a social contract that had been absent since the Great Society, in which more than a trillion dollars of wealth was confiscated from the productive and given to the unproductive, with devastating consequences. The lingering cost of that failed experiment is still being paid by people living in zones of hopelessness where fathers were replaced by the state.
De Tocqueville again: "As soon as common affairs are treated in common, each man notices that he is not as independent of his fellows as he used to suppose and that to get their help he must often offer his aid to them."
That is, if a citizen is to expect help from his fellow American, he has an implied obligation to offer help in return, creating a social capital to which all Americans can contribute and, when necessary, draw. Understood was a reciprocating binding social contract of accountability. Citizens had an obligation to help, but recipients also had an obligation to return to the productive side of the social capital ledger. Only then could these intermediating institutions be sustained.
If we should reach the precipice of such a condition where churches and charities succumb to encroaching federal power, we should finally learn the meaning of de Tocqueville's warning. "It is in vain to summon a people who have been rendered so dependent on the central power to choose from time to time the representatives of that power; this rare and brief exercise of their free choice, however important it may be, will not prevent them from gradually losing the faculties of thinking, feeling, and acting for themselves, and thus gradually falling below the level of humanity."
Goodbye churches and charities, welcome bureaucratic and politician domination. That is the wrong direction, and it should be defeated.
Newt Gingrich is a senior fellow at AEI. Rick Tyler is the founding director of Renewing American Leadership.