Charity and Beto’s Tax Returns

Democratic 2020 presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke reacts during a kickoff rally on the streets of El Paso, Texas, March 30, 2019. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

Beto O’Rourke released his tax returns. From the Washington Post:

Former congressman Beto O’Rourke (D-Tex.) released 10 years of tax returns last night. He and his wife reported$1,166 of charitable giving from a total income of $370,412 in 2017, the most recent year for which they released a return. That’s one-third of 1 percent.

Many of the other Democratic presidential contenders were only modestly more generous.

Now, it’s pretty much axiomatic that everyone can do better when it comes to giving to charity. I know I can. But that’s a different subject. We can talk about what is good for your soul another time. What confuses me is the seeming lack of cynicism on display.

Machiavelli, the go-to stand-in for, well, Machiavellianism would have advised giving money to charity — so long as you can be seen doing so. “There is nothing more important than appearing to be religious,” he advised the Prince. “Everyone sees what you appear to be, few really know what you are.”

And of course:

It is good to have a reputation for being generous. Nevertheless, generosity exercised in a way that does not bring you the reputation for being generous, injures you. If you exercise it modestly as it should be exercised, it may go unnoticed, and you will not avoid the reproach of being a miser.

Beto O’Rourke and many of his competitors have been eyeing the presidency for a long time. How many personal and professional choices have they made based on the idea of becoming — or staying — viable as a presidential candidate? A thousand? A million?

And yet even though they know their tax returns will be put on display for all to see, they don’t even do the minimal things required to appear generous.

There are plenty of partisan points one could score about liberals thinking tax dollars are substitute for charity. But it seems like many Republicans have had the same blind spot (I haven’t gone back to check). More substantively, I also think you could argue that we’d be a better and more generous country if we punished public figures more for their lack of charitable giving. Giving for its own sake is good, but it would be even better for everyone if giving were an essential part of careerism.

Then again, Bill Clinton spent his entire life coveting the presidency and according to his own spokesperson prepared his tax returns with an eye to how the public would read them. And, yet, he still claimed the used underwear he gave to charity as a deduction. I’m not sure what Machiavelli would have made of that.

Jonah Goldberg, a senior editor of National Review and the author of Suicide of the West, holds the Asness Chair in Applied Liberty at the American Enterprise Institute.

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