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RUSSELL WANGERSKY: Smacking gift horses in the mouth

If people have money for good causes, should we reallly criticize how they spend it, Russell Wangersky writes. —
If people have money for good causes, should we reallly criticize how they spend it, Russell Wangersky writes. — 123RF Stock Photo

I’m not sure why simple benevolence makes some people see red.

But it does.

Two things, one big and one small, collided this week to remind me of that.

First, MacKenzie Bezos announced she intended to give US$18 billion — half of her net worth — to charity, writing, “I have a disproportionate amount of money to share. My approach to philanthropy will continue to be thoughtful. It will take time and effort and care. But I won’t wait. And I will keep at it until the safe is empty.”

The plan received a variety of reactions — among them, somewhat expectedly, were calls for reforms to the tax system for the extremely wealthy. Some of those calls were as simple as that; others were far more offensive. But the core message was the same: why should we depend on the rich to support pet projects they approve of, instead of raising tax dollars to support worthy causes?

The other thing? A tempest in a teapot, really: a small social media explosion over an honorary degree granted by Memorial University this week. A St. John’s philanthropist was awarded a degree in recognition of her extensive — truly extensive — work and support on behalf of health and education causes, particularly autism and autism research. The complaint? That the university was essentially selling honorary degrees.

My first thought: would you like gratuitous spite with your hot take?

The argument was that having people with money donate to the causes that they choose skews funding to particular causes. In addition, it could turn the funding of legitimate needs into a sort of a battle for recognition by people with the means to pay.

It’s something that could be fixed, once again, by efficient and effective taxation of the richest.

Would it be better if an effective tax system fairly collected money from high-income earners and fairly distributed among agencies and causes that needed it?

Absolutely.

Self-interest has a way of tainting all water supplies.

But at the same time, don’t forget that money spent by governments is not necessarily fairly divided amongst the agencies and concerns that need support. No one may be keen to admit it, but cabinet ministers and governments have their own pet concerns. They may, for example, have personal experiences that make them favour one cause over another. And sometimes, it’s merely electioneering; a cause becomes high-profile, and money flows to it from governments because government members are keenly aware of the publicity bang they’ll be able to get for applying your bucks to the problem. That’s why they are always on site to hand over the cheque.

Those with the private means to support causes they identify with will support causes they identify with. Governments, on the other hand, can be counted on to spend public money in ways that will generate the most electoral credit. Neither has a monopoly on altruism. But neither should be completely condemned, either.

It would be fantastic to have a system that was completely fair in collecting and dispersing common funding for the common good. I doubt it could ever happen, as long as we are depending on humans as decision-makers anywhere in the great equation. Self-interest has a way of tainting all water supplies.

And since that hasn’t yet happened (and probably won’t happen), is it fair to castigate those who might be willing to donate their time, money and effort to a cause or charity that they honestly identify with?

No.

To be sure, any decision on their imminent elevation to sainthood should, perhaps, be left to whatever deity they ascribe to, along with a full balancing of their manifest sins and virtues.

But those who use their resources to help others don’t deserve drive-by snarking, either.

Russell Wangersky’s column appears in 36 SaltWire newspapers and websites in Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at russell.wangersky@thetelegram.com — Twitter: @wangersky.


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