Friday, December 16, 2005

Anticipating an unintended consequence

From NPR.
On Oct. 31, 2004, on the eve of the presidential election, guest preacher George Regas took to the pulpit at All Saint's Church in Pasadena, Ca., and issued a sermon describing a hypothetical conversation between Jesus, President George Bush and Sen. John Kerry. That sermon sparked an IRS investigation of the church. …

The IRS has stepped up its investigations of churches accused of endorsing political candidates. The agency is examining about 60 churches over complaints about endorsements from the 2004 election alone.

It's illegal for a tax-exempt organization like a church to endorse or criticize candidates, but the boundaries aren't always clear. The new focus has raised serious questions for all nonprofit organizations: Can they even discuss politics at all in an election cycle?
I liked this report a lot. The primary issue was the difficulty of drawing a line between expressing a position about a policy—which is allowed for tax exempt organizations—and endorsing or criticising a candidate for political office—which isn't. How implicit must one's implicit endorsement be to be ok? If a minister preaches an anti-abortion (or pro-choice) sermon and then suggests that the congregation vote in a way that will support that position, is that endorsing the candidate who agrees with that position—even the the sermon didn't mention anyone by name?

I think it's a very difficult line to draw. Given my preference for minimum government interference with speech, my inclination would be to eliminate this restriction. Let religious organizations endorse whomever they want.

What will happen? Political organizations will set themselves up as religious organizations and claim tax-free status. Having eliminated the need to distinguish between expressing an opinion about policy vs. candidates, one will then be faced with having to distinguish between real religious organizations and ersatz ones set up by political interest groups to take advantage of the tax-free status.

What I think is interesting about this is the emergence (in a traditional, not complex systems sense) of a new mechanism as the the mechanism to be gamed and manipulated when some other mechanism, which had been the target of gaming and manipulation is eliminated as a target. It's as if any mechanism that makes a difference is vulnerable to gaming and manipulation. It's the ones that are must visible that get the most attention. But remove one, and another one, which had always been there looms more significant. Once one institutes a mechanism, one forever after subjects that mechanism to potential gaming and manipulation whenever gaming and manipulation it is worth the trouble.

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