If I pay my taxes, why should I also give to charity?

post by lukefreeman, ToniA, Surbhi B · 2021-04-15T06:44:17.194Z · EA · GW · 3 comments

This is a link post for https://www.givingwhatwecan.org/post/2021/04/if-i-pay-my-taxes-why-should-i-also-give-to-charity/

Most people around the world pay a significant portion of their income in personal income tax to support government services. Fulfilling this large, obligatory payment can feel like a significant financial burden, and perhaps make people feel complacent about the need for charitable giving. However, while tax revenue can fund important social services, taxes are not a replacement for charity.

Governments collect taxes from their constituents and predominantly use that revenue to pay for services that benefit their constituents. Some tax revenue is spent on altruistic goals such as helping lower-income nations via foreign aid, but the amount is substantially less than most people believe. Often, foreign aid is an exercise of soft power — it increases the reputation and influence of the benefactor government.

Aside from voting and engaging in activism, there's little that an average citizen can do to influence government spending. However, individual donors can exercise complete agency in directing their personal charitable donations. While governments typically seek the most politically viable solutions to social problems, individual donors are able to support only the most effective charities.

Government policies often serve the needs and preferences of the average voter, but donors can choose to help disenfranchised groups who are not able to vote for their own interests, such as (in no particular order):

Donors can also support groups that, while able to vote, are not adequately served by government programs.

In the essay Famine, Affluence, and Morality, Peter Singer argues that "if it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it."

We all have the power to prevent suffering by giving to charities at relatively little cost to ourselves. So if you want to help improve the world through charity, we celebrate you and encourage you to donate to one of the many highly effective organisations so that your charitable dollar can go as far as possible.

To make an even deeper commitment to helping others, consider making a giving pledge and joining our worldwide community of like-minded people who are working to make the world a better place.


This post is part of a series on common myths and misconceptions about charity. Taking time to learn the facts will help prevent the spread of misinformation and inspire more people to use their resources effectively to improve the world.

This post was updated on 26 April 2020, see the original version here.

3 comments

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comment by Larks · 2021-04-15T17:34:04.402Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I'm glad you wrote this article, as I think this is a common objection, especially among more conservative people, so it is good to have a stock response. However, I think it could be significantly improved by first building up a steel-man of the 'myth' and then precisely targetting the response.

Most people around the world pay 20–40% of their income in taxes to support government services.

This link goes to a table of top quoted marginal income tax rates. However, this is an over-estimate, because the average is below the marginal. It is also an under-estimate, because it does not include sales taxes, property taxes, VATs, inheritance taxes, corporation taxes, payroll taxes, petrol taxes, tobacco taxes, mandatory insurance purchases, licence fees, utility taxes or import tariffs. I would recommend looking at total government spending / GDP instead.

This obligatory and often large payment can feel like the end of our civic duties — the culmination of our "fair" contribution to society, nullifying the need for further charitable giving.

I think this is a bit of a straw-man; I would expect people making this objection to also regard voting, jury duty, educating their children, national service, not committing crimes etc. to also be part of their civic duties.

Also if your point is that charity is different from taxes I'm not sure it makes sense to talk about 'further' charitable giving.

While lower-income countries suffer from an overall lack of funding, wealthier countries are liable to misallocate the funding they have.

This seems like a strange argument. Yes, small countries would benefit from more funding, but so would rich countries. Similarly, while rich countries are liable to spend on wasteful things, so are poor countries. The correct argument is not 'need vs misallocation', it is about diminishing marginal utility of money.

Also, the citation you provided seems rather niche. There are many major examples of government waste in the first world - extremely inefficient procurement being a very clear and non-partisan example. In contrast, the fact that some authors argue that too much climate change research funding has gone to research climate change seems like a relatively small and not obviously compelling example.

Political mobilization can influence governments' budgetary spending and help correct such misallocations,

This does not seem obviously non-trivially the case to me. There are many examples of political campaigns pushing for increasing in spending on something, but I struggle to think of many examples of similar successful campaigns to cut spending. And on average I would generally expect populist campaigns to reduce the average efficiency of spending, even if they 'could' in theory improve it.

Rather than viewing taxes as charity, think of them as payment for services that benefit you and your fellow citizens. Infrastructure and social services are important!

I'm not sure why you are pushing this view, it seems very confused to me:

  1. If they are a 'payment for services that benefit you' it is a very strange sort of payment. The amount of taxes you pay is not very closely linked at all to the amount of benefit you get, and you have almost no ability to opt out. Indeed, many people will pay taxes that go to fund the government hurting them.
  2. If the taxes really are a payment for services to benefit your fellow citizens, this seems somewhat like charity. In this case, why shouldn't I treat taxes to fund a fellow citizen's education as being similar to donations to a domestic education charity?
  3. Only a relatively small fraction of taxes go towards infrastructure. Even Biden's recent 'Infrastructure Bill' is mostly non-infrastructure spending.
  4. Public serves are a larger component of spending, but are still often dominated by welfare spending of one kind or other.
  5. This section takes an unnecessarily political view that risks alienating some readers despite making no difference to the core argument. Even if taxes were 100% waste there would still be a strong argument to give to charity.

Paying your taxes is the right thing to do, but paying your taxes alone is not sufficient to significantly improve the lives of others.

Similarly, I'm not sure what argument this is trying to make. The idea that we have an obligation to pay taxes is not uncontroversial, but to the extent people believe it, it is largely because they think doing so makes people better off. A lot of people probably believe that if they were excused from paying taxes that would significantly improve their life; if paying taxes doesn't significantly help anyone else, but it does hurt them, why should paying be the right thing for them to do?

But again, this seems extraneous. Giving to charity is a good idea regardless of whether paying taxes significantly improves the lives of others, and regardless of whether it is the 'right thing to do'.

Replies from: lukefreeman
comment by lukefreeman · 2021-04-16T00:38:12.218Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for the very detailed feedback! I've shared this with the team and we'll be addressing it and incorporating into an updated version 😀 

comment by Ozzie Gooen (oagr) · 2021-04-19T03:34:12.243Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Like Larks, I'm happy that work is being put into this. That said, I find this issue quite frustrating to discuss, because I think a fully honest discussion would take a lot more words than most people would have time for.

“Since I already pay my fair share in taxes, I don’t need to give to charity”

This is the sort of statement that has multiple presuppositions that I wouldn't agree with.

  • I pay my "fair share" in taxes
  • There's such thing as a "fair share"
  • There is some fairly objective and relevant notion of what one "needs to do"

The phrase is about as alien to me, and as far from my belief system, as an argument saying,

The alien Zordon transmits that Xzenefile means no charity.

One method of dealing with the argument above would be something like,

"Well, we know that Zordon previously transmitted Zerketeviz, which implies that signature Y12 might be relevant, so actually charity is valid."

But my preferred answer would be,
"First, I need you to end your belief in this Zordon figure".

The obvious problem is that this latter point would take a good amount of convincing, but I wanted to put this out there.