New Works in the Field / Political Scientists and Philanthropy

Donations Without Domination: Private Charity and Republican Liberty

Editors’ Note: Robert S. Taylor introduces his “competitive model of public charity,” which he argues satisfies the imperatives of the republican intellectual tradition and which he outlined in a recent article in the Journal of Political Philosophy.

Over the centuries, the republican intellectual tradition has focused on limiting domination of some citizens by others—be they private or public agents—through various political tools, including participatory ones (e.g., democratic contestation via elections, protests, etc.) and constitutional ones (e.g., the checks and balances associated with the separation of powers, bicameralism, federalism, and international legalism). This approach to limiting the exercise of arbitrary power can be traced through the Florentine and Atlantic strands of classical republicanism, including thinkers such as Machiavelli, Milton, Harrington, Sidney, Blackstone, and many of the American Founders. Contemporary republicans like Philip Pettit and Quentin Skinner have emphasized that what ties all of these thinkers together is a commitment to freedom as non-domination, i.e., immunity from arbitrary power, which can be distinguished from the weaker, liberal commitment to freedom as mere non-interference. A slave, for example, may not be interfered with by a benevolent master, but he is still vulnerable to such interference and is therefore unfree in the republican sense.

These contemporary republicans have had a less-than-charitable attitude towards private beneficence, especially when it’s directed to the poor. Consider, for instance, this statement from Pettit: “if I desperately need the help of some particular other or others [such as “a rich benefactor”]…then I am going to be in a position where I will not complain against any arbitrary, perhaps petty, forms of interference by such agents. I will be disposed to placate them at any cost, putting myself in the classic position of the dominated supplicant.” Republicans have responded to this purported problem with private charity by proposing an impartial public provision of charity via government welfare programs. A disturbing feature of such programs, however, is the kind of discretionary power that they place in the hands of welfare administrators, both to determine whether the conditions for support are being met and to cut off aid if they fail to be met. Certain limitations can be put on such powers, such as rights of appeal to quasi-judicial bodies if and when benefits are cut, but there will remain an ineliminable degree of bureaucratic discretion that can and often will be utilized for non-public ends.

This problem of discretionary administrative power over clients is only made worse by the state’s dominant position in the charity market. Such dominance is guaranteed not only by its size and scope but also by the fact that public charity tends to “crowd out” private charity, eliminating much of the state’s competition. There is broad empirical evidence that crowding-out is substantial. For example, recent experimental and observational studies have shown rates of crowding-out of private charity ranging from 50% to 73%: i.e., for every dollar of state spending, private spending falls by 50 to 73 cents.

State domination of the charity market, combined with benefit conditionality, gives welfare officials a kind of arbitrary power over recipients that private benefactors rarely have. This makes the traditional welfare state look unattractive from a republican point of view, the concern being that it just replaces one species of discretionary power (that of the “rich benefactor”) with another (that of the welfare bureaucrat), leaving the poor as vulnerable or even more vulnerable than they were before.

To their credit, republicans are well aware that benefit conditionality and its accompanying bureaucratic discretion can compromise the poor’s freedom (understood as non-domination). Leading republican theorists such as Pettit and Frank Lovett have consequently rejected traditional welfare states and advocated an unconditional basic income (UBI) instead, one that would dispense with the need for such bureaucratic discretion.

Such a UBI would have some clear advantages over the traditional welfare state. The first is administrative simplicity: given the absence of conditionality, no eligibility criteria need to be assessed by bureaucrats, meaning that (relatively) few of them will be required to administer the program. Traditional welfare states are administratively complex, by contrast, as they encompass a wide array of separate programs with different eligibility criteria. The second, closely related advantage is transparency: each UBI annual check will be the same and should be equal to the UBI budget, less administrative overhead, divided by the population size, which will make monitoring easier. Traditional welfare states are opaque by comparison due to their administrative complexity. Finally, the UBI’s transparency ought to reduce opportunities for corruption or abuse compared to the traditional welfare state.

The greatest comparative disadvantage of the UBI, however, is its expense, which calls into question its political feasibility. Even a modest UBI will be extremely costly, owing to its very unconditionality: unlike traditional welfare states, a UBI subsidizes everyone equally—rich, poor, and middle class—and this lack of targeting will often necessitate large tax increases, even after taking into account compensating reductions in other entitlement programs. For example, imagine that all public social expenditures in the U.S. (excluding health care) were converted into a UBI: this would have yielded about $5600 per person in 2013, which was not even halfway to that year’s poverty threshold of about $12,000 for a single person under age 65, so reaching it would have required the U.S. to more than double its non-health public social expenditures—a rather challenging political task, to put it mildly. If a sufficiently generous UBI turns out to be politically infeasible at any given time or place, is the only alternative the traditional welfare state, which, as we have seen, is highly defective from a republican point of view?

In my recent article in the Journal of Political Philosophy, I explore the contours of a possible alternative. I call this alternative the competitive model of public charity to contrast it with the administrative model found in the traditional welfare state and the UBI. In this competitive model, the state regulates and subsidizes a decentralized nonstatist provision of charity. Instead of concentrating enormous discretionary power in the hands of welfare bureaucrats, then valiantly trying to constrain this power through unconditionality, my approach advocates a return to a form of private provision that fixes its historically objectionable features by directing the state to (1) fight collusion among private charities, (2) supply information to recipients about various sources of assistance, and (3) liberally subsidize charities, either directly by way of grants or indirectly by way of tax subsidies or vouchers for donors.

The state’s primary job in this model would be to preserve competition between charitable providers by various means. First and foremost, antitrust laws would need to be extended to charity markets to thwart the kind of coordination and collusion over assistance levels, services offered, eligibility criteria, etc., that charitable providers may pursue in the name of effectiveness and efficiency (e.g., Catholics and Lutherans combining their soup kitchens). In order to prevent “rich benefactors” from exercising arbitrary power over “dominated supplicants,” to use Pettit’s terms, antitrust authorities would need to watch charity markets carefully, as in the absence of a traditional welfare state the private sector will be the principal provider of aid and therefore a possible site of domination.

It will not be the sole provider of aid, however, because that would be unlikely to maximize the competitiveness of the charity market; in the competitive model, the state is tasked with providing additional services beyond that of antitrust enforcement. First, the state must offer full information on the locations, eligibility criteria, and available services of different charitable organizations to potential recipients. Client ignorance would hinder mobility among competing patrons, increasing their market power and making the poor more vulnerable. Second, in cases where antitrust action and information provision are insufficient to make local charity markets competitive, the state must act as a provider of last resort, thereby injecting some much-needed competition into them. Such so-called “public options,” designed to widen choice and discipline private providers, have already played roles in both health care and education and could play a similar role here. What is essential in these cases, however, is that the state remain one provider among many, without any special privileges or ambitions to corner the market, because displacing most private providers would only undermine competition and thus exacerbate the poor’s vulnerability.

So far, the competitive model may appear to be one of private rather than public charity, with the state’s role being limited to charity-market regulation, information dissemination, and service provision in extremis. I must therefore return to a feature I mentioned at the start: generous public funding. The most obvious and least invasive strategy for doing so is via substantial state subsidies. Broadly speaking, these subsidies might take two non-mutually-exclusive forms: direct subsidies to private-charity providers or indirect subsidies to these providers by way of either tax breaks or vouchers given to their private donors. I am agnostic with regard to the proper mix of these policy tools, though I would be surprised if all one or all the other were optimal. The best mix will usually vary depending upon context. One thing we can say is that each has its own strengths and weaknesses. Direct subsidies to private charities could be allocated by either a body of experts given substantial discretion or a bureaucracy given little or no discretion but rather guided by a set of outcome-based rules (e.g., success measures like health or educational outcomes for the poor or transitions out of poverty itself). Expert allocation would have the great advantage of flexibility but would also be susceptible to “capture,” whether by the private charities they are charged with subsidizing or by the experts themselves (social workers, social scientists, etc.), who might have various kinds of private agendas. Bureaucratic allocation, on the other hand, would be less flexible but also less susceptible to capture; moreover, its allocation rules could be designed by experts. Indirect subsidies, being both highly decentralized and dependent upon the donation decisions of myriad donors, would be least susceptible to capture but also least likely to be guided by expert judgment of any kind. Given all of this, the most we can do is make certain comparative claims: for example, the more probable that capture is (due to political culture or institutions, say), all else equal, the more attractive indirect subsidies and perhaps bureaucratic allocation of direct subsidies will be.

Now that I’ve described my competitive model in greater detail, you can see that it is, in fact, rightly called a model of public charity: beneficence stays ostensibly private within it, carried out by a pluralistic proliferation of competing groups rather than the state, but the entire charity market is both superintended and subsidized by the state. This system returns to the decentralized, nonstatist charity of the past but also secures the kind of competitive, adequate provision required by republicanism.

This competitive model of public charity unites some of the best features of the two administrative models. Like the traditional welfare state, it targets the poor and is therefore more affordable than a generous UBI—a plus in tax-averse countries of the Anglosphere. Like the UBI but unlike the traditional welfare state, it can markedly reduce domination of the poor in both charity and labor markets, but by a different means than the UBI: rather than relying on unconditionality, it instead harnesses competitive, liberally-subsidized charity markets in the service of republican liberty. I remain agnostic about whether my competitive model of public charity is superior to a UBI, all things considered—this judgment hinges on a host of difficult empirical considerations—but I am certain that either is preferable to a traditional welfare state, and this conclusion has vital implications for republican welfare policy. In a second-best world, where a UBI is politically infeasible, my updated version of an old-fashioned solution might be the best republican response to the problem of poverty.

-Robert S. Taylor

Robert S. Taylor is a professor of political science at the University of California, Davis. He specializes in contemporary analytic political philosophy and the history of liberal political thought. He is the author of Reconstructing Rawls: The Kantian Foundations of Justice as Fairness (PSU Press, 2011) and Exit Left: Markets and Mobility in Republican Thought (Oxford University Press, 2017).

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