Voucherisation of charity

I missed the story two weeks ago on Cheryl Gillan's proposal to voucherise charity funding. If I'd been in the country (I was skiing), I'd have laid into it at the time, but for such an idiotic proposal, late is better than never.

The comments on Tim Montgomerie's reporting of the suggestion on ConservativeHome were generally supportive. It shows how drippingly wet the modern Tories are getting. I propose a new term, of which this is a classic example: Camoronism. A Camoronism is an idea that looks superficially cuddly and attractive at first sight, but which on closer inspection turns out to be ugly and dumb - in fact downright moronic.

The idea is that the Tories want to encourage charities to do more of the work currently carried out by government, but don't want to fund it directly because government is not good at deciding how to allocate funds. So far, so good. As so often, the diagnosis is sound, but the prescription is more dangerous than the disease. Cheryl's prescription is to provide vouchers to volunteers, entitling the organisation for which they volunteer to a share of state funding.

Charities need both labour and money. They do not necessarily need them proportionately. Nor is it the case that those who cannot commit labour (for instance, if they are working hard to support a family) have neither the desire to give nor the judgment to choose which charity to support. Why would those who volunteer for charities have a better idea of how to spend my money than I would?

How is volunteering to be measured? Will an hour a year count? Or will the value of the vouchers be proportionate to the time contributed? Will all volunteers have to keep timesheets to "prove" their contribution? How will their claims be audited? Who in the process would have an incentive not to exaggerate?

If people feel strongly, they will contribute what they can. If they can contribute time and effort, that's great. If they can contribute money, that's also great. If someone has earnt a lot of money and is able to contribute generously, their judgment of value is likely to be better than someone who has earnt little money and does little enough work to contribute generously of their time. In some cases, that will not be true, but if neither allocation is perfect, at least simple charitable donation and volunteering without intervention and redistribution by the state avoids the bureaucratic losses of Cheryl's proposal, and allows people to dispose of their own property as they see fit, right or wrong. Outsourcing the state-funding of charities to its volunteers is just diffusing the irrationality of government allocation. This is unlikely to make the allocation more rational.

The greatest charitable giving occurs in the USA, supposedly the land of selfishness, but where individual charitable contributions count for 2% of GDP, compared to 0.9% in the UK. The state provides little funding, and therefore takes little in tax for the support of charities. Where the state provides, people will feel little responsibility to duplicate its efforts, but where the state leaves a vacuum, people rush in to fill it, providing they are allowed to create and keep sufficient wealth to do so.

As P.J. O'Rourke put it (quoted in my comment on Tim's site):

"There is no virtue in compulsory government charity, and there is no virtue in advocating it. A politician who portrays himself as 'caring' and 'sensitive' because he wants to expand the government's charitable programs is merely saying that he's willing to try to do good with other people's money. Well, who isn't? And a voter who takes pride in supporting such programs is telling us that he'll do good with his own money -- if a gun is held to his head."