The French government recently approved plans for a new tax on airline tickets, to be levied on all passengers boarding a plane in France that would be distributed to the world's poor. Is such a tax ethically sound? Jewish tradition recognizes that charitable giving must consist of both a private and public component. It is this combination that allows both the public need and personal preferences to be met. Whereas public trustees must follow very strict rules regarding allocation of funding, private donors have much greater leeway in choosing the recipient of their largesse. Private donors may, perhaps must, give priority to a close relative, something that would be a terrible breach of trust if done by public foundations such as a Federation.
The existence of a public system of charitable giving means that Jewish law recognizes a coercive nature in assessing minimum charitable requirements. While the Diaspora Jewish community is no longer able to enforce this most crucial of mitzvoth, secular governments can and continue to do so. This forced charity is what we call taxes supporting as they do health care, education, the unemployed and the needy. Jewish law recognizes that governments have tremendous latitude in determining the public interest. If halacha recognized this right in the pre modern era of monarchs, dictators and the like this is all the more so in democratic countries where the government truly are the people's representatives. This new French initiative would thus appear to be a wonderful way to raise funds for a worthy cause, one to which many would otherwise not contribute.
Nonetheless on closer analysis it appears to me that this law raises ethical issues that seriously question its appropriateness. One of the requirements of a Jewish social service system is the need for universality. Every member of society must participate in helping to alleviate poverty. As charitable giving benefits both the recipient and the donor, even those who themselves are recipients of charity must donate, albeit in very small amounts, to anti-poverty efforts. A law that targets only airline travelers fails to meet this criterion. It could even be argued that such a tax is inherently discriminatory and thus illegal under Jewish law. Furthermore, as the many airlines that have lobbied against passage of this law have noted it places airlines at a competitive disadvantage. While adding a user tax designated, for example, to capital improvements at the airport would seem to present no ethical problem despite a similar increase in costs - doing so for extraneous purposes would unnecessarily wreak economic harm on an already beleaguered industry. This would violate the ethical responsibility of a government to pursue policies that encourage economic growth and development. Whereas general taxes may be spent as the government sees fit, taxes levied on particular industries should be spent on those industries.
Another issue relates to the nature of airline travel. With France being the leading tourist destination in the world attracting over100 million visitors a year a large proportion of those traveling in France are citizens of other countries. While the specifics vary depending on the type of charity involved, Jewish law does not levy communal taxes on those just passing through a particular locale. The laws of Passover begin with the codification of the obligation to ensure the poor have their needs met for the holiday; however only those who have settled permanently or resided for 12 months must participate.
The concept of a designated tax to help alleviate poverty is a beautiful one and one that should definitely be encouraged provided it is assessed across the board. However singling out air travelers is not the way to go.