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Voluntary Aids


§ 149. Having now reviewed the nature and the financial sys tem of local self-government, the field is clear for the discussion of a class of public aids, which, as we have already had occasion to remark in the general exposition, must not be made too much of, but which nevertheless demand a place in any fiscal system, and especially in modern finance, and therefore can not be omitted altogether from the discussion. These are the Volun tary Aids rendered the community by private individuals for public purposes, and in competition with the more rigid system of national and local administration.

As to ideals we are all pretty well agreed. The best and most desirable arrangement would surely be that the aggregate of what today is required for the purposes of the empire, state, and commune should be tendered spontaneously,—from an uncon strained inclination, with a full knowledge and consciousness, from the force of an enlightened and cordial recognition of what is due to the commonwealth. But seeing that this ideal is very far from being realized, it is after all, or rather it is all the more gratifying to find, at least by way of exception, that something is done from this motive, and it is not for us to make little of this gratifying feature in so far as there is substantial ground for rejoicing.

It is also not an easy matter for us to dispense with this ideal. For all the difficulties in the practical working of a system of taxation are in large measure due to the fact that the coercive measures of our tax legislation and tax administration find the lack of sentiment for the commonwealth so great an obstacle as to make the struggle against it always difficult and sometimes futile. The success of these coercive measures rests not exclu sively, though to a considerable extent, on the growth of a relative willingness on the part of the citizens. We need only call to mind that the contrast between direct and indirect taxation is intimately connected with this question. The problem is to make the most of the deficient willingness to pay taxes, by a skillful employment of ingenious methods of taxation, just as a medi cine must be administered to a child in some form that is palata ble to him. We may also call to mind that modern constitutional provisions of every civilized state concede to this element of vol untary readiness a dominant influence in legislation and administra tion. The basis of political " liberty " is the fact that " society " makes its will felt in the affairs of the state, not only in the sense of forming a realistic limit to the application of the high strung projects of political idealism, but also in the sense that it consti tutes a permanent counterpoise which holds every measure look ing toward an ideal national organization down to its own lower plane.

Any one who desires instances of this has only to turn to the everyday experiences of any modern state, not last to those of the Prussian state, with its ineffectual tax reforms and the short comings of its tax administration.

There is therefore no occasion to take one's stand on the high ground of national institutions and contemptuously dismiss this ideal factor of spontaneous assumption of financial burdens. On the other hand, there is a great deal to be hoped for financial progress from a growth in this direction.

At the same time it is well to be on one's guard against con venient illusions that go to overrate the services rendered by simple volunteer efforts, as judged by the standard of actual financial necessities.

For this reason it will be best to examine a little more closely what are the services actually rendered by volunteer effort.

§ 150. First as regards the range of voluntary aids, as judged by the standard of the aggregate of public needs.

No motive of practical charity is to be denied its due appre ciation. But this appreciation cannot set aside the fact that even the noblest and best efforts of voluntary charity, such as we find it in practice in German countries, amounts in the aggregate to but a very modest portion of what is required for the purpose. The peculiarly pathetic circumstances which afford the special occasions for this work of compassion themselves go to strengthen the case. They indicate that the utmost that can be accom plished by voluntary effort has already been accomplished ; they constitute an empirical proof as to what point can be attained by this means, by the utmost exertion and with the best conceivable moral disposition.

If we make a comparison, e. g., between the expenditures required of the German finances on account of the armaments of the German states plus the French-Prussian war on the one hand, and the aggregate of all charitable gifts collected under the immediate pressure of the misery incident to the war on the other, we shall find that the latter are related to the former, in character and volume, somewhat as the delicacies offered a con valescent are related to the aggregate expenditures incurred in the care of the sick.

This ought of course to be otherwise, and there is some 'ground to hope that the very wealthy upper classes especially will gradually learn to discharge their duties to society in a far more adequate measure than hitherto,—that the dangers incident to the great social inequalities of the time will oblige them, out of regard for their own best interest, to seek this means of conciliation. In the meantime, it is to be remarked, what has actually been done is, in spite of all deceptive show, extremely inadequate.

The ground of hope lies elsewhere, in the examples offered by other times and countries, which go to indicate the possibility of a transformation of custom and of moral standards. Such, e. g., are the customs we find prevailing in the early towns with their numerous foundations, in the Swiss cantons, and especially in the United States of America. It is a difficult matter to find out just what part has been played in this connection by the truly ethical motive, either in early times or in the present. On the one hand it may be safe to assume that divergence of inter ests in our modern industrial society must have strengthened the egoistic factors, and that consequently the modern increase of wealth has diminished the inclination to incur sacrifices for the public good. The Earl of Shaftesbury, with his wide experience in the English philanthropic work of a generation ago, expressly declares' that the difficulty of raising money for philanthropic pur poses increases with every year that passes, and will ever increase with the increase of wealth ; inasmuch as the love of money and the passion for amassing it ever increases with the greatness of the wealth possessed.

Still, the testimony which the United States furnishes in elo quent deeds seems to speak to a different purpose. It exhibits a series of voluntary gifts to the community, which, in comparison with what we are used to, are of a magnitude to be- viewed amazement. A merchant of Baltimore, Johns Hopkins, in 1876, donated a sum of seven million dollars, one-half to the founding of a university, the rest for a hospital. Girard, of Philadelphia, gave two million dollars for the foundation of Girard College. Smithson gave half-a-million to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. Vassar gave a like sum toward the foundation of Vassar College in New York state. Lick gave to the University of California the sum of $700,000 to build and equip the most complete astronomical observatory in existence.' And all this falls within the last few decades ; for down to 1846 the highest figure of any gift of this kind given during the donor's lifetime did not exceed $50,000.

These facts are the more significant as coming from the classic home of modern industrialism ; but they are after all, as we shall presently see, not to be rated too high.

§151. But even if the volume of voluntary contributions and in particular such as we meet with in Germany, is of itself a contracted one, there are yet certain qualitative drawbacks to be considered, which will go far to dissipate altogether the impres sion they make.

It very frequently happens that spontaneity, in the sense in. which we are fond of conceiving it, is not present at all. In all cases where the familiar subscription list is passed around for the relief of some sudden or chronic distress, or for the erection of monuments, churches, and the like, it is in great part nothing voluntary whatever, and can properly bear this name only to distinguish it from compulsory taxation by the government. In such a case it is not the coercion of the tax law but the compul sion, less rigorous it is true, but still the compulsion, of public sentiment, of usage, of decency, of reputability, of social stand acts as a power from without to enforce the very moderate inclination to afford voluntary aid.

In view of this state of the case, with respect to the ethical aspect of a large portion of the so-called voluntary contributions, the question may well be asked, whether the whole business is really sufficient to justify the very appreciable expenditure of energy involved in getting the means together in this scattering fashion, as well as the great amount and variety of annoyance undergone by the members of society who bear a hand in the matter. Might it not be more to the purpose to raise this much additional contribution by the directer method of taxation ? This directer method is also pretty obviously suggested by a familiar fact. These same benefactors of mankind on whom their hundreds of thousands and millions devolve the duty, and more especially the honor, of distinguishing themselves by liberal subscriptions, as honorable as they are easily afforded, are in the habit of leaving a margin of such proportions in their legally obligatory tax payments that this ostentatious liberality of theirs is but a very inadequate "conscience fund" when set off against what, in performing their less public obligations, they have neglected and continue to neglect. They would do better to conform to the requirements of the law, and then let all this ostentatious pretense alone—the pretense of giving something to the community beyond what is legally due from them, while in point of fact, they have fallen far short of doing their duty. The praiseworthy instances in which the gratuity is not pretense alone, but very truth, are surely not to be underrated, but they make up most decidedly only a small minority of the cases.

§ 152. There is a further circumstance to be taken into account in connection with this voluntary contribution to public purposes, namely, the manner of looking at certain public objects that appeal to our philanthropy.

The view taken is largely determined by certain narrow con ceptions of the nature of the functions of the state, based on the emotion produced by particular occurrences, instead of an intel ligent appreciation of the great necessities of national life. The so-called charitable gifts prompted by a sentimental compassion for a particular misfortune, and analogous instances, are in them selves worthy of all respect. But their moral dimensions turn out to be sadly shrunken when we come to find that this very habit of mind, that is so sensitive to an emotion, seems to have no suspicion of the fact that the aggregate of public objects, —all that the state requires of the individual—should properly claim the same cordial response, regardless of how much or how little it is calculated, superficially, to appeal to sentiment.

And a second consideration goes along with this one. This sate view of the functions of the state which proposes to meet the serious requirements of the commonwealth by means of an impotent voluntarism, is moreover, in attaining its slight actual results, given to the employment of all sorts of questionable financiering, which is to be justified only by its laudable aims. Entertainments are got up, which afford the usual circle of socia ble acquaintances of the season another occasion to come together and kill time. High official sanction is obtained for the institution of lotteries, which the government ought to prohibit for any and all purposes, if it only had something more of a conscience than it has.

However we may look at the matter, therefore, whether from the point of view of their scope or of their nature, the category of voluntary contributions serves no other purpose than that of bringing into a stronger light the great importance of a fiscal sys tem backed by coercive power and resting on national legisla tion.

public, aggregate, tax, modern and taxation