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):
- People living in foreign countries
- Non-citizens and those without the right to vote (e.g., convicted felons)
- Nonhuman animals
- Future generations
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.
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.