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Charitable acts are sometimes motivated by a desire to cultivate a favorable reputation, or even to project intelligence. Perhaps certain charitable acts are motivated by guilt of one kind or another. Tax deduction are nice, too. But sometimes a charitable gift is prompted by no more than a desire to help others less fortunate. It’s likely a combination of motives in many cases, but to gainsay the purity of anyone’s charitable motives is rather unseemly. Yet Gaby Del Valle does just that in Vox, casting a skeptical eye at Jeff Bezos’ efforts to help the homeless through his Day 1 Fund.

“Last week, Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos announced that he and his wife, MacKenzie Bezos, were donating $97.5 million to 24 organizations that provide homeless services across the country. The donation is part of Bezos’s $2 billion ‘Day 1 Fund, a philanthropic endeavor … that, according to Bezos, focuses on establishing ‘a network of new, non-profit, tier-one preschools in low-income communities’ and funding existing nonprofits that provide homeless services.”

Del Valle says Bezos deserves little credit for his big gift for several reasons. First, Amazon very publicly opposed a recent initiative for a $275 per employee tax on large employers in Seattle. The proceeds would have been used to fund public programs for the homeless. This allegation suggests that Bezos feels guilty, or that the gift is a cynical attempt to buy-off critics. That might have an element of truth, but the tax was well worthy of opposition on economic grounds — almost as if it was designed to stunt employment and economic growth in the city.

Second, because Amazon has been an engine of growth for Seattle, Del Valle intimates that the company and other large employers are responsible for the city’s high cost of housing and therefore homelessness. Of course, growth in a region’s economy is likely to lead to higher housing prices if the supply of housing does not keep pace, but forsaking economic growth is not a solution. Furthermore, every large city in the country suffers from some degree of homelessness. And not all of those homeless individuals have been “displaced”, as Del Valle would have it. Some have relocated voluntarily without any guarantee or even desire for employment. As for the housing stock, government environmental regulations, zoning policies and rent control (in some markets) restrains expansion, leading to higher costs.

Finally, Del Valle implies that private efforts to help the homeless are somehow inferior to “leadership by elected officials”. Further, she seems to regard these charitable acts as threatening to “public” objectives and government control. At least she doesn’t disguise her authoritarian impulses. Del Valle also quotes a vague allegation that one of the charities beholden to Amazon is less than a paragon of charitable virtue. Well, I have heard similar allegations that government isn’t celebrated for rectitude in fulfilling its duties. Like all statists, Del Valle imagines that government technocrats possess the best vision of how to design aid programs. That attitude is an extension of the scientism and delusions of efficacy typical of central planners. Anyone with the slightest awareness of the government’s poor track record in low-income housing would approach such a question with trepidation. In contrast, private efforts often serve as laboratories in which to test innovative programs that can later be adopted on a broader scale.

While selfishness might motivate private acts of charity in some cases, only voluntary, private charity can ever qualify as real charity. Government benefits for the homeless are funded by taxes, which are compulsory. Such public programs might be justifiable as an extension of social insurance, but it is not charity in any pure sense; neither are it advocates engaged in promoting real charity, despite their conveniently moralistic positioning. And unlike private charity, government redistribution programs can be restrained only through a political process in which substantial payers are a distinct minority of the voting population.

Public aid and private charity have worked alongside each other for many years in the U.S. According to Russ Roberts, private giving to the poor began to be “crowded-out” during the Great Depression by a dramatic increase in public assistance programs. (Also see Doug Bandow’s “War On Charity“.) It’s certainly more difficult to make a case for gifts to the poor when donors are taxed by the government in order to redistribute income.

The statist war on private charity can take other forms. The regulatory apparatus can crowd-out private efforts to extend a helping hand. Chloe Anagnos of the American Institute for Economic Research (AIER) writes of a charity in Kansas City that wanted to provide home-cooked soup to the homeless, but health officials intervened, pouring bleach into the soup. I am aware of similar but less drastic actions in St. Louis, where organizations attempting to hand-out sandwiches to the poor were recently prohibited by health authorities.

Private charity has drawn criticism because its source has driven economic growth, its source has opposed policies that stunt comic growth, and because it might interfere with the remote possibility that government would do it better. But private charity plays a critical role in meeting the needs of the disadvantaged, whether as a substitute for public aid where it falls short, or as a supplement. It can also play a productive role in identifying the most effective designs for aid programs. Of course, there are corrupt organizations and individuals purporting to do charitable work, which argues for a degree of public supervision over private charities. But unfortunately, common sense is too often lost to overzealous enforcement. In general, the public sector should not stand in the way of private charities and charitable acts, but real generosity has little value to those who press for domination by the state.