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In the United States, there is widespread antipathy toward taxation, yet at the same time there are substantial voluntary donations to nonprofit organizations with missions that are parallel to those of many government agencies. In this paper we compare giving in the form of voluntary taxes paid to government agencies with giving in the form of voluntary donations to nonprofit organizations that have similar missions. In a laboratory experimental setting, subjects are given an endowment, and are given the opportunity to donate any part of the endowment to a government agency or to a nonprofit organization. We compare levels of giving to private and government organizations for four different causes (cancer research, disaster relief, education, and parks and wildlife) at three levels of government (federal, state and local). Within a session, subjects make 12 decisions: they complete all six separate decisions for each of two causes, selected randomly from the four listed above. We find that people are not averse to giving to government. On average, they give 22 percent of their budget to government when anonymity is ensured and giving is completely voluntary. However, they do show a preference for nonprofit charities by giving higher amounts for most causes and levels of government. The willingness to give is influenced by the cause and level of the organization, as well as perceptions of the organization.


Funding was provided by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the National Science Foundation (SES-0554893 and SES-0136684 ). Thanks to Edward McCaffery for suggesting this idea to us. Research assistance was provided by Linda Bi, Natalia Candelo, Vera Holovchenko, Eric McLester, Angela Milano, Elizabeth Pickett, and Hrishakesh Singhania. We are grateful to Christian Vossler and conference participants at the AEA (New Orleans 2008), the Midwest Economics Association (Chicago 2008) meetings, and the International ESA meetings (Caltech, 2008) for helpful comments. Experiments were conducted at the Center for Behavioral and Experimental Economic Science at the University of Texas at Dallas (

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