Tax Favors for Philanthropy: Should Our Republic Underwrite de Tocqueville's Democracy?

60 Pages Posted: 9 Sep 2011

See all articles by Rob Atkinson

Rob Atkinson

Florida State University - College of Law

Date Written: September 8, 2011


Tax theorists have long debated the rationales for the federal income tax system’s favorable treatment of philanthropy. The debate has certainly become more sophisticated, but it has nonetheless failed to produce anything near full convergence of opinion. This article reviews that debate and reaches a paradoxical conclusion: Although the present system of exemption and deduction is perhaps impossible to justify in any other way, that system almost perfectly co-ordinates three basic features of American society: the populist and anti-statist sources of American philanthropy, the consumerist orientation of our form of market capitalism, and our tax system’s reliance on income as its principal revenue source.

To say that the Code’s treatment of philanthropy accommodates these three features well, however, is not to say that any of them is itself good; as an alternative to the current system’s fundamental populism and consumerism, this paper proposes a neo-classically republican view of the public good, grounded in the constitutional values of justice and general welfare. Philanthropy’s core function will be to promote those values. This, in turn, implies not only a very different tax treatment of philanthropy, but also a very different relationship between philanthropy and the state. The Code implicitly endorses the philanthropy of Jacksonian democracy and consumerist capitalism; the philanthropy of both Jefferson and Lincoln’s republicanism would look quite different (and much more like that of Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Ethics and Politics). It would better fit both the neo-classically republican elements of our constitutional culture and what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.”

Suggested Citation

Atkinson, Rob E., Tax Favors for Philanthropy: Should Our Republic Underwrite de Tocqueville's Democracy? (September 8, 2011). FSU College of Law, Public Law Research Paper No. 541, Available at SSRN: or

Rob E. Atkinson (Contact Author)

Florida State University - College of Law ( email )

425 W. Jefferson Street
Tallahassee, FL 32306
United States
850-644-4503 (Phone)

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