Will philanthropy meet the challenge of criticism?

Philanthropy is experiencing rapid growth in France and around the world, but certain abuses damage the nobility of this charitable commitment, by obscuring the explosion of profits and the reduction of public services. Criticism of these failings is an opportunity to reinvent private generosity.

“Stealing in a big way and giving back in a small way is philanthropy,” the Marxist Paul Lafargue once said ironically about the patrons who, at the end of the XIXe century, camouflaged their predatory strategies behind a veil of apparent beneficence, the better to oppose the advent of a protective social state. The work of Vincent Edin, When charity doesn’t care about hospitals: Investigation into the perversions of philanthropy, is a contemporary echo of this grating aphorism. The publisher presents the work as “the essay which denounces the great hypocrisy and the vast scam that philanthropy has become”. The author methodically denounces the paradoxes of a charitable activity whose nobility he recognizes when it is practiced with honesty and discretion, but whose excesses he condemns when it becomes the heavily publicized crude makeup of a less glorious reality. . The author’s legitimacy in expressing himself on the subject is not trivial and his vigorous style stimulates the reader. The arguments deployed in this vitriolic essay deserve attention, in a societal context where philanthropy (understood as “voluntary private contribution to causes of general interest”) is arousing renewed interest, thanks to decline of the welfare state and the rapid rise of fortunes of immeasurable dimensions.

A legitimate and healthy question

Vincent Edin is a connoisseur of the mysteries of the subject, both as a practitioner and as an author. The work is well sourced and documented (112 references) and appeals to a double readership: on the one hand, experts and practitioners in the charitable sector, about the ethical challenges of fundraising in an increasingly competitive environment (the total volume of generosity grows less quickly than social needs), on the other hand a general public which often ignores the concept of “philanthropy” (is it synonymous with “gift of money” or “benevolence”?), but for whom the subject is perfectly accessible and questions our profound societal choices.

The theses developed are direct and strong: the capture of immense portions of collective wealth by a small number of individuals is not only unfair, but also socially dangerous; the embellishment of certain predatory behaviors with philanthropic discourse is doubly unacceptable, because this instrumentalization weakens the social pact while insulting the vast majority of donors, small or large, who demonstrate sincere and truly selfless generosity. In short, according to the author, the best philanthropist is the one who starts by paying his taxes in full. The perfect counter-testimony is the one who evades taxes and then buys a patent of virtue by donating a few “coins” (p. 29) to good works. This picture would seem cynical if it were not supported by several very real examples of billionaires who accumulate fortunes through operations bordering on legality (or at the limit of decency) and who then offer themselves a favorable full-page press coverage of major newspapers (qualified as “media watchdogs”, p. 73) for the modest sums they donate to public or charitable organizations, without anyone thinking of making the connection between these flows crossed of unequal proportions. “When the wise man says: ‘Pay what you owe to the States, to your employees and to your contractors,’ the fool watches the conference on companies that change the world! » summarizes Vincent Edin (p. 65). The book exposes this sleight of hand in full light and invites us to broaden our perspective, often deliberately truncated by embellished stories, to consider each philanthropic approach in an overall vision.

Radical recommendations

Vincent Edin recalls that the “trickle down theory” (trickle down theory), supposed to justify tax relief for the richest on the grounds that their assets would be reinvested in society (hence the idea of ​​“trickle down” of which philanthropy would be one of the modalities), has been constantly denied by the facts and economic statistics available to date. No work in the scientific literature demonstrates its theoretical or empirical accuracy, although it has been repeatedly invoked in some political discourse and taken up, implicitly or explicitly, in the media. In order to dispel any misunderstanding, the author reminds us that the “rich” he calls into question are not the households designated by François Hollande in 2006 (at that time at €4,000 monthly income), nor even the 1% of households. the most prosperous, but the 0.1%, or even the 0.01% of the ultra-rich, whose wealth soars in exponential proportions, in the mathematical sense of the term, following an acceleration curve which seems have no limits. The capture of $845 billion in additional capital by the 643 richest Americans during the first six months of the coronavirus crisis (p.44), even as millions of workers were suddenly plunged into the throes of unemployment and that so many families were falling into poverty, seems indecent to him. Rightly so, the reader will no doubt think, while waiting to read such a robust contrary argument to refute this implacable observation.

For great ills, great remedies: the solutions put forward by the author are radical. It is about eradicating the concept of billionaire-plutocrats “who should never have become so rich” (p. 73). The popular instrument is the progressive tax, which leads the wealthiest to make a greater effort than the average taxpayer, by paying their cost to the public Treasury in proportion to their superior capacities. This is the original sin that the author points out: the constant erosion of tax progressivity for half a century for taxpayers located at the top of the pyramid. In this he agrees with the theses of internationally renowned French economists, such as Gaël Giraud, Thomas Piketty, or Gabriel Zucman. Although the idea of ​​eradicating billionaires may seem exaggerated at first glance, it would not have shocked our ancestors who, during the 1950s, under the American presidency of Republican Dwight Eisenhower, accepted a marginal tax bracket without batting an eyelid. at 91%. We know what happened next: the wave of financial liberalization initiated by the Reagan-Thatcher tandem in the 1980s gave birth to today’s world, where the emergence of the middle classes enabled by the welfare state (the great socio-economic success of the West At XXe century) was broken. The simple evocation of this historical truth has, however, become sacrilege in the circles of the globalized economy, including when the subject of the debate concerns fair redistributive taxation. This is evidenced by the outcry caused in 2019 by the Dutch historian Rutger Bregman when he dared to make this reminder in Davos, freeing himself from the pre-established script, using the metaphor of the fire: “I have the impression of participating at a firefighters’ conference in which it is forbidden to talk about water. (…) The solution is simple: let’s stop talking about philanthropy and instead talk about taxes, taxes, taxes. “. The sequence, which instantly became viral, was shared by millions of Internet users.

A middle way to build

If the work resolutely presents itself as a stone in the pond, splashing well beyond the scope of foundations and associations, the latter may feel helpless in the face of this serious diagnosis with no easy remedy. They will indeed remain confronted with this triple questioning: How can we hear criticism in the current state of the sector’s difficulties? How can we welcome it constructively despite its virulence? And above all, how can we deny it in the long term?

In this quest, it will of course be necessary to continue a fruitful dialogue already underway with the public authorities. We will have to follow a path of crest while avoiding falling on one side on the slope of the concert of praises praising all the billionaires without taking a step back, nor sliding on the other side into the ravine of vehement diatribes which amalgamate and condemn all philanthropists without distinction. In this difficult trek, honoring exemplary figures can serve as a pilgrim’s staff, like Chuck Feeney, a contemporary billionaire who distributed his entire fortune during his lifetime, whose secret and authentic generosity inspires already a new generation of patrons. It should also be remembered that the traditions of old French families, noble or bourgeois, have a deep sense of intergenerational transmission of values ​​among which philanthropy occupies a central place. Vincent Edin underlines in this regard (but too succinctly) the commitment of the Noailles, always discreet and persistent over the centuries. This spirit is perpetuated today by dynamic networks such as those of family foundations (Like the French association “Un Esprit de Famille” which brings together funds and foundations of family or private initiative.), which have little of things in common with the technology gurus of Silicon Valley whose stated ambition borders on hubris.

Clarifying the debate to promote true philanthropy

When closing the work, we may regret that the pleasant and impertinent tone of the essayist sometimes flirts with the accusatory intonations of the prosecutor. We would have liked him to be more of an advocate for all these major donors who accomplish remarkable works, but rarely noticed. We would also have appreciated if he more clearly distinguished the “seduction operations” of multinationals listed on the stock exchange, with distant and indifferent shareholders, contrasting sharply with the local patronage of family businesses and individual donors rooted in their regions. France has in fact many philanthropists, who are certainly not perfect (who can claim to be?), but who act with good will, without noise or compensation, essentially for the beauty of the gesture. Perhaps this (majority) reality will be the subject of a future essay to offer the reader a balanced panorama of the philanthropic landscape?

Moreover, we should not see this essay with its provocative title as yet another rant against patronage or against wealth. The author expressly denies this. It is rather an uncompromising diagnosis, certainly sometimes harsh, of the shortcomings that urgently need to be corrected in order to better allow true philanthropy, in the original Greek sense of “love of humanity”, to flourish. Because ultimately, are the protagonists who damage the beautiful idea of ​​philanthropy: The minority of those who exploit and pervert it? The Cassandras who, like the author, point out the danger looming on the horizon? Or those who abstain from the discernment necessary to avoid it?

By addressing these questions, we will surely end up proving Paul Lafargue’s unjust maxim wrong. We can bet that this avant-garde essay will give rise to in-depth reflection on the place that should be given to philanthropic action and on the safeguards necessary to preserve one’s greatness of soul, by separating the wheat from the ‘tares. Eighteen years after the Aillagon law of 2003, “French-style” philanthropy has reached the age of majority and will certainly meet the challenge of criticism to shine even more brightly.