Sunday, February 22, 2015

One Man's Story ...

... and the "general Welfare"

In her Washington Post column today, Michelle Singletary retold the story of a dedicated Detroit man – James Robertson – who walked 21 miles to work every day and the crowd sourcing effort to buy him a car. Ms. Singletary said that the "story is heartwarming ... But I’m disturbed that the story has become more about one man than an issue".

Coincidentally, I worked on my federal and state income tax returns this weekend. While I've griped previously about the unnecessary evil that is a tax return (an effective, efficient tax code wouldn't require yearly flagellation), two items grated on me: the federal interest deduction for boats and the Virginia Farm Wineries and Vineyards Tax Credit. In each case legislators have cobbled out a section of the tax code to favor a group of people rather than "promote the general Welfare". Maybe I'm just envious that I couldn't take advantage of either.

Most of us like a human interest story that ends well. Likewise most of us like to see our neighbors, home-town businesses, and state-based industries get ahead. None of these, however, is a valid basis for public policy where the public at large does not benefit. Benefactors can give to whomever they want, but the giver should not expect or receive a public benefit – read, tax break – for their philanthropy. Individuals and business deserve to get ahead because of their determination and skill, not because of politically conferred favor or benefit. Mr. Robertson deserves our admiration; elected officials deserve our scorn for not seeing the big picture.

A search on the word altruism returns "the belief in or practice of disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others". That's the basis for public policy that moves us all forward.