COLUMN

Stop the petty sniping at philanthropists

If a person’s private property and income belong to him, then the more say he has in how the government spends his money, the better

BARBARA AMIEL January 22 1996
COLUMN

Stop the petty sniping at philanthropists

If a person’s private property and income belong to him, then the more say he has in how the government spends his money, the better

BARBARA AMIEL January 22 1996

Stop the petty sniping at philanthropists

COLUMN

If a person’s private property and income belong to him, then the more say he has in how the government spends his money, the better

BARBARA AMIEL

The Boxing Day editorial in The Globe and Mail tried to pull its punches. At first glance, it seemed to be praising the “generosity” of 1995’s great Canadian philanthropists: $15 million donated by financier Seymour Schulich to York University School of Business; $3 million worth of paintings from Joey and Toby Tannenbaum to the Art Gallery of Ontario; $3 million worth of Degas, Monet and other paintings from the estate of the late Saidye Bronfman to Ottawa’s National Gallery; $11 million from the Ivey family of London, Ont., to the University of Western Ontario business school.

But just as this information moved from page to eye to brain, the delicious warmth that filled the heart was replaced by a chill: “There are some,” warned the editorial, and one knew with sinking heart that we were about to learn why we should all feel this way, “who would question the real generosity behind such donations.” It turns out that “Mr. Schulich, after all, stands to earn a $1.8-million tax reduction for his $15-million gift, if he so desires,” and the taxpayers “could lose as much as $900,000 if the Tannenbaums decide to claim a deduction.” The editorial wanted to make three points: real altruists would donate from after-tax income only; second, that private giving is dangerous because in America, where tax deductions for philanthropy are 40 per cent, as opposed to the Canadian 29 per cent or less, private donors have “virtually controlled . . . important cultural institutions” by big donations; and third, that the ultimate state of grace for Canada would be one where charitable acts were seen as “obligations.”

I accept the notion that true altruism means no personal benefit. If you give a dollar to a beggar, that is real philanthropy. If you give away a dollar that would otherwise be taken away from you by the government, it is simply an allocation of your resources

according to your own lights. But even by this purest of definitions, our donors remain true philanthropists. According to the Globe’s own calculations, Schulich, if he claims his full charitable deduction, will give away $13.2 million more than his tax receipt, and the Tannenbaums will give away millions as well. Frankly, if the Globe’s attitude becomes law in this land, I’d recommend to Mr. Schulich and the Tannenbaums, and any potential donor large or small, that they pack up their piggy banks and paintings and move to a more hospitable country where their charity is not scrutinized to make sure it is free of “self-interest.”

One is reminded of the York professor who argued a few years ago that everything a person earns is really the property of the state, and that it is wrong to look at one’s income as one’s own because it actually belongs to the common weal. Whether I earned $15,000 or $500,000 would make no difference—the state would give me the same as my neighbor got, and if I earned nothing, I would be given the same income by the state.

But those societies that work best, and Canada is among them, do not accept this

premise: we believe that money or property lawfully generated and acquired belongs to the individual, and even though we agree to give a portion of our income to the state for common purposes such as roads or defence, anything else a citizen wants to give away from his income should as much as possible be under his own control. By allowing a tax deduction for certain contributions, the government is saying two things: it encourages you to spend your money on the arts or hospitals or various other designated areas so government can spend less on them and, second and as important, it is saying that it will also allow citizens some say in how their tax dollars will be spent. After all, a charitable tax deduction has no value unless you have a tax bill to deduct it from. When I can choose where to donate, I am being given a say in how my tax dollars should be allocated.

Far from being ended or reduced, this tax deduction and the areas designated as eligible, should, if anything, be enlarged. If my tax bill is $20,000, it seems to me that in a genuine participatory democracy, $15,000 could go to general revenues and the remaining $5,000 could be specified by me to go to public broadcasting, the National Ballet, juvenile diabetes or back to general revenues. If a principle of this society is that a person’s private property and income belong to him, then the more say he has in how the government spends his money, the better.

As for the Globe’s notion that the taste and judgment of social engineers and bureaucrats are preferable to the judgment and taste of the committed philanthropist, only a dyed-in-the-wool statist could believe that. American cultural institutions compare more favorably with Canadian ones: take a look at the heavily endowed Metropolitan Museum of Art, the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the Frick Collection or the Barnes Foundation Collection. The Globe editorial finds a moral superiority in a situation where the people who call the cultural tune have not paid the piper, but rather have expropriated other people’s money to do it. I don’t see it.

There is something intrinsically insidious in the Globe stance, which only uses the example of the super-rich to question the quality of contemporary altruism. The proportionate tax deduction is available to every citizen who sends off his money for, say, a war amputees key chain. Perhaps the idea is to have one law for those with higher incomes. We will not question the moral fibre of the pensioner, but will establish a Ministry of Altruism to improve the moral fibre of the super-rich.

I look at things in a different way. When Mr. Schulich donates $15 million and takes his tax deduction, it is socially beneficial in two marvellous ways: first, York University gets all that money, and second, the state’s power is reduced by $1.8 million. In my books, the second benefit probably outweighs the first.