You pays yer money and you takes yer choice!


Andrew Milner


The Notre Dame fire and the philanthropic response to it have featured a couple of times in these pages recently[1]. The episode has thrown up the question of whether a philanthropy which is effectively sponsored by the state (and indirectly by the taxpayer) should be used for purposes which aren’t seen as either urgent or general.

I believe that there are really two issues here, though it’s easy to see how they run into one another. The first and more fundamental one is whether a philanthropy enabled and encouraged by the state through tax relief is legitimate at all. If we give money should it just be our own, or should we be allowed to withhold some of what would otherwise have gone into the public purse in order to do so? Bearing in mind who I’m talking to, I’m going to assume that most readers will go for option 2.

Which brings me to the second part of my question: if you defend state-sponsored philanthropy as an element of democratic choice, a form of freedom to make a contribution to the public good unmediated by the state (and it’s hard to see on what other grounds you would defend it), you can’t claim that freedom for yourself and simultaneously deny it to others. You have to allow each individual to make their choice, trivial, even abhorrent, though it might appear to you. In other words, you have to accept that any cause, provided that it’s not specifically disallowed by the legislation of the state in question, is also a legitimate object of philanthropy.

Setting up a moral hierarchy within those permitted objects – a sort of league table of worthiness – is another matter and involves an entirely personal judgement. Of course, everyone likes to believe they’re right, but – as above – you have to concede the right of others to believe they’re are right, too. It’s worth bearing in mind that monopolies of virtue are as likely to harden into tyrannies as monopolies of vice.

(I know that some states, while apparently encouraging philanthropy, obstruct or prevent its support for certain causes which liberal opinion would see as eminently worthy. I leave them out of this account. The question I’m interested in is not whether some things should be legitimate but aren’t, but whether all the things generally seen as legitimate should be. I’m arguing that – logically – they should be and that there are no general grounds for seeing one cause as more legitimate than another).

So, if I had money to give away, would I give it to a dog’s home? No, I wouldn’t, nor for that matter, would I give it to the restoration of Notre Dame, though I’m as fond as the next person of old buildings, and making all allowance for its spiritual and psychological importance to many people. If others do, I have to conceded that that’s their affair.

For the same reason, I don’t believe the question, what is philanthropy for? (raised by former editor of Alliance, Caroline Hartnell, in her final editorial), is answerable except in the most individual or the most general of terms – Barry Gaberman’s dictum that it’s the voluntary deployment of private resources for public good (I’m paraphrasing) may be as near as we can get. Of course, the crux of the matter is how you interpret ‘public good’.

So, where were we? Ah, yes… If you accept the principle of tax-exempt giving, you have to be prepared for some of it to go to causes you might not approve of. If you don’t like this state of affairs, here are some things you might do:

  1. Campaign to have tax relief on charitable giving removed in the country you live in.
  2. Campaign to have what constitutes a legitimate philanthropic object redefined in etc, etc.
  3. Suck it up.

There is of course a fourth alternative – you can try to persuade others to adopt your view of what constitutes a good cause by argument and demonstration.

Andrew Milner is associate editor of Alliance magazine

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