Philanthropy no substitute for public policy



May 23, 2019 - 10:20 AM

During his commencement address to Morehouse College students, billionaire Robert F. Smith announced he would pay the student loans of every graduate.

Around the turn of the last century, the steel magnate Andrew Carnegie paid to build 1,689 libraries across the United States. Many are still in use, celebrated as monumental works of philanthropy.

They should be seen as monuments to the failure of public policy. The United States could have built a lot more libraries by taxing the incomes of Carnegie and his fellow Gilded Age plutocrats, but, at the turn of the last century, there was no federal income tax.

Now history is repeating itself. A new generation of plutocrats has amassed great fortunes, in part because the federal government has minimized the burden of taxation. Americans once again are reduced to applauding acts of philanthropy necessitated by failures of policy.

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