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Philanthropy, state-charity and a man called Albert

A fascinating story today in the Telegraph, about millionaire businessman and founder of the Kwik Save chain of supermarkets, Albert Gubay, who has given away the vast majority of his fortune to charity in order to ‘fulfill a pact he had made with God’.

In short, devout Roman Catholic Gubay, who had been a penniless sweets-seller in post-war Wales, prayed to God to make him a millionaire, and promised that, in return, he would give back half his wealth when he died. Clearly not one to renege on a promise, Gubay has gone above and beyond his original pact, and left most of his estate to a charitable trust, which will distribute funds each year (around £20million) half of which has to go to the Roman Catholic Church, and the other half to other charitable causes.

Now, this is heartening, not only because it demonstrates a vibrancy of faith amongst riches all too sorely missed in contemporary society, but also because it exhibits a philanthropic impulse that, in the contemporary state vs. society debate, is highly pertinent.

To veer off track for just a second, I remember visiting, as a child, the impressive Bowes Museum over in Teesdale, and reading about how its founders had, to put it bluntly, built the place out of the goodness of their own heart. That is, they were passionate about the arts, they wanted to build a place where they could share this passion with others (John Bowes was a Teesdale man) and so they built the Museum to satisfy that desire. As far as I’m aware, it was never a money-making venture: nothing other than a love for the arts and simple philanthropic zeal guided the project.

And I remember being impressed, not to say a little awe-struck. I mean, that people would spend so much money, give so much time, do so much for others when they didn’t have to, and all for no greater reason than they wanted to share with others what they enjoyed themselves – it all seemed a world away from what I thought I knew about the world.

The thing is Bowes Museum, in the history of our nation, is far from an extraordinary case: from private projects to public services, schools and hospitals to museums and theatres – so much of what we now consider the vital elements of a civilised society came from nothing more than the good will and fraternity of socially-aware (and, importantly, economically able) individuals.

To swing this back to the political point I was hoping to make, the question becomes whether the state, or more accurately statism, can sometimes stranlge this impulse. It has long been contested by the right that the more the state does, the less people feel they have to do for one another, and social relations and associations suffer accordingly. People don’t help one another because, after all, that is the job of the state, and it is what we pay our taxes for. It is important to note that this critique doesn’t only hold true for ‘charitable giving’ so to speak, and there are also robust critiques of welfarism as destructive of social relations, from the Red Tory amongst others. Anyway, the corollary of this is that, the right alleges, in a world rather less statist, people will look after one another, and charitable and mutual associations would form once more, and this would lead to a more vibrant, caring society.

There is something attractive about the simplicity of this vision, not least because it appeals to common sense, and most of us can think of an example where it might be true. Indeed, research coming out of the US would seem to support such a theory: apparently, the liberal-left in America are far eclipsed by their conservative brethren in terms of charitable giving – much to the initial disbelief of the author.

Though, one mustn’t take too superficial a view. After all, to use an imperfect analogy, if a husband comes home and gives his wife his earnings for the week so that she might run the household, then he would be surprised to find his wife asking him for more money when they reached the checkout at the local supermarket. Either way, the conclusion is interesting, not because it shows conservatives to be inherently more charitable (I don’t think it does), but because it implies two forms of philanthropic impulse – the one in which an individual willingly gives to the state a larger proportion of his income, in order that the state might better help those most in need, and the one in which the individual wishes to give the state less, and take upon his own back the dispensation of charity to those who are needy – if and when he sees fit.

There are, however, things that muddy the water here, and which make that simplistic divide little more than a general categorisation, rather than a catch-all description. For example, the effective nationalisation of charity has brought with it an unprecedented ability for the government to dole out funds to charitable organisations that better reflect the social priorities of those in power, rather than the people, nominally at least, doing the giving. This somewhat negates the authenticity of the first form offered above – that is, charity is not really charity if it divorced from the good intents and wishes of the people doing the giving.

Thus, placing charitable giving in the hands of the state can be good, but it also has its down sides – in essence, it allows the government to artificially fund initiatives and charities that, apart from the political will of the state, have little public support. Which, in turn, makes those charities more pliable to the will of the state, or rather the political classes that reside there, and more concerned with making themselves politically acceptable in order to ensure a continuing slice of taxpayer charity – leaving some charitable organisations acutely prone to political posturing (Catholic adoption agencies, anyone?). After all, one wonders if ‘Equalities’ projects, ‘diversity’ training (and the pernicious multiculturalism it has foisted upon us all), or endless ‘minorities’ campaigns, would have had either the scope or influence they have had if it wasn’t for the fact that they rely largely on the fashionable ideas of a woefully inept political class. And one must question, with hindsight, whether such sponsorship is money well spent, or ideas well received.

In this narrow sense, then, perhaps the market may well be a better tool for governing the rise and fall of charitable organisations, because charity will then largely reinforce (rather than subvert) the social, moral and cultural norms of the people of whom they are requesting aid: which, or so it seems to me, is a more authentic account of ‘charity’.

To my own mind, and if I had to choose (either/or) only one model, then I think I would encourage private philanthropy. Either way, in the years to come we might find ourselves presented with the outlying form of an answer, as various sectors of an increasingly disengaged electorate see private philanthropy as an alternative means of protesting against a distant state. For example, those state-maintained Catholic schools who feel more than a little persecuted by recent education legislation, may yet come to recognise that one solution is to cut themselves off from dependence on the state, and set up their own institutions as a potential alternative (although you can bet there would be governmental moves to counter this, especially where such schools refused to teach state-approved views and beliefs – this being an apparent catch of the Conservative free-schools advocacy). Even so,I think this kind of change is already happening, and people are becomingly increasingly aware, and more willing to take the plunge. If only for that reason alone, let’s hope there are many more Albert Gubays to come.

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