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PROSPERITY: Economic Policy | January 18, 1989



An Unpublished Letter to Los Angeles Times

Other interpretations aside, President Bush's "thousand points of light" has been from the beginning a call for volunteerism, as a substitute for governmental social programs. Although this might be an admirable personal sentiment, it makes poor public policy.

The harsh fact of life is that volunteerism is unfair, ultimately a regressive tax: Although there are exceptions, the lower one's income, the greater share of one's income (or time) one usually gives to such charities. This is the opposite of funding such programs with progressive income taxes: Those who are more able to pay -- those who profit more in our economy -- bear a progressively larger burden.

The other harsh fact of life is that volunteerism is unwise, if one is truly serious about getting the job done. Over the last decade, as the growth of federal social programs has been cut, charities have been unable to take-up the slack -- witness the rising homelessness and poverty in America. Such wastefulness of our human resources is as unwise as it is inhuman.

Don't get me wrong: Volunteerism and other forms of charity are good -- millions depend on our generosity -- but social programs, mandated and coordinated by the government and reliably funded by progressive taxes, are better.

Some of our "thousand points of light" can -- and should -- burn brighter than others.

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