Picture the scene: a lover of humanity or “philanthropist” who regularly makes large donations to charity has just been told about the Conservative proposals to limit the tax “relief” he will “enjoy” on such contributions. “Wait a minute!” the philanthropist splutters. “You mean that, in order to get the warm glow of having given a million quid to charity, I will actually have to spend a million quid?” His butler regretfully informs him that yes, this is indeed the case. “Well then, fuhggedaboudit!” the “philanthropist” expostulates in fury. “I’ll spend it all on crack cocaine instead! FUCK YOU, CHARITABLE CAUSES!”
Such is the “philanthropic” calculation recognized as entirely natural and not worthy of moral comment by both sides in the “debate”. The Labour party in particular, desperate to avoid such comment, has simply decided to eliminate any mention of the moral agency of rich individuals by describing the proposals as something they are not, in an outrage-generating slogan of cynical Unspeak: so let’s all oppose the… CHARITIES TAX!
Now, any level of tax “relief” on charitable donations is effectively a form of voluntary hypothecation that undermines the justice of the tax system as a whole, as even its defenders recognize. ((Witness Dominic Lawson’s weird column in the Independent today, where he “explains” support for the plans as based on class envy: “It causes such people almost physical pain to think of the possible pleasure it gives to the rich when they tithe their income to charities of their choice, rather than in taxes to fund the state’s own choice.”)) The Conservative MP Richard Harrington put the issue with admirable clarity: “Is it acceptable, under any circumstances, for people obeying the law and earning money – a lot of money – to say ‘I’m opting out of paying tax on my income’ because they are giving to charity? Should people be able to choose to support, say, the National Theatre, the opera and Christian Aid, while choosing not to support the National Health Service, education and social services?”
This sounds like a respectable Labour position, doesn’t it? Yet under its current leader, the gorm-challenged ((This is a kinder way, I think, to say “gormless”.)) Ed Miliband, Labour has opportunistically branded the proposals as the CHARITIES TAX, even though what is proposed is not any extra tax on charities, but rather a reduction in the money handed back to the rich as a reward for demonstrating their “philanthropy”. It is risibly inconsistent of Labour to oppose this while also opposing the Conservatives’ tax cut for the rich from 50% to 45%. To cover up the inconsistency, they simply slap a shiny new Unspeak label over what they are opposing this time, and hope no one will notice.
CHARITIES TAX is certainly a colourful specimen in its headline-chasing hucksterism, but we should also be careful about the use of the term “philanthropist” itself in such arguments. It implies that only those who have acquired lots of wealth and then disgorge it to carefully selected institutions can truly love their fellow humans, and it further implies that actually paying tax so that all members of your society might benefit is not philanthropic (or even charitable) at all. If some people are happy to describe themselves as “philanthropists” in this sense, media reports probably shouldn’t endorse the connotation of purchased virtue.