Taxing investors to pay NGOs

In India, NGOs are fashionable. It is almost never wrong, in the Indian discourse, to give more money and more functions to NGOs.

Many people have worried about the extent to which NGOs are being used to supplant failing State machinery. This may seem expedient, but no country every became a developed country on the back of NGOs. There is no alternative to fixing the core mechanisms of the State.

In recent days, two pro-NGO policy elements seem to be in the pipeline:

  1. A new Companies Bill seems to require that 2% of profit be spent on corporate social responsibility (CSR).
  2. SEBI decided to force listed companies, starting with the top 100 firms, to describe measures taken by them along the key principles enunciated in the ‘National voluntary guidelines on social, environmental and economic responsibilities of business,’ framed by the Ministry of Corporate Affairs (MCA).
When the government grabs 2% of the profit of a company, and hands it out to any purpose (no matter how good or bad), that is called expropriation. The fact that it satisfies some bleeding hearts does not change the fact that it is expropriation. In a good country, property rights would be fundamental, and the Supreme Court would block such expropriation.
The job of a corporation is to efficiently organise production, and send dividends back to shareholders. It is the individual, the shareholder, who has to then make a call about whether he would like to give money to charitable causes or not. We do wrong by expropriating this money even before it reaches the individual.
We do wrong by placing the burden of charitable works upon the corporation. Corporations should not be organised to be do-gooders. They should be organised to obey laws, have high ethical standards and then power India’s way out of poverty by efficiently organising production. Anything that corporations do, other than focusing on efficient production, is a distraction from the main trajectory of India’s growth and development.
When a country is run by bleeding hearts, things start going wrong. If such a tax is enacted, it reduces the post-tax return on capital that Indian firms generate. Foreign investors and domestic investors have choices about where to invest. They will demand that firms only invest in a smaller set of high-return projects, which are competitive on the rate of return by global standards, even after being taxed. In other words, many projects will not be undertaken. This can’t be good for India.
To make progress in India, we need to be hard headed. We should not let the urge to do good crowd out intelligence and analysis. We are falling into this trap too often.
One key element that I blame is the Indian college education. We fail to teach political science (so we get things like the Anna Hazare phenomenon; too many people who have not read The Republic). We fail to teach economics, so we get the education cess. Given the absence of a positive strategy for what India should be doing, in the mainstream, we are willing to turn away from the hard work of fixing the State, and feel satisfied by funding some do-gooding NGOs.

Intellectuals are the yeast that make a society rise, and we in India have been skimping on this yeast.

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