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Charities tax

Philanthropy, philanthropy, they’ve all got it philanthropy

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.1 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-challenged2 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.

  1. 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.”
  2. This is a kinder way, I think, to say “gormless”.
5 comments
  1. 1  Kit  April 18, 2012, 2:24 am 

    Lovely to meet you at Verso on Monday. Great to find this – I had the exact same debate with my boyfriend last week. I give to a couple of charities (besides spending money on various arts organisations with charitable status) but I’ve never agreed to Gift Aid for any of them. As much as I believe they’re doing good – hence the donations after all – I don’t feel the power to take legitimate tax revenue away from the state is one I ought to have. And I too have taken umbrage at the ridiculous idea that swathes of people might be disastrously discouraged from giving money because 20% will be taken by the state.

    A couple of days after this discussion, I opened my mail to find Glyndebourne of all places asking me to GiftAid my membership fees…

    Kit

    PS – Just bought Unspeak for myself and the Trigger Happy book to give to my videogame-loving housemate. (He plays videogames with a projector. Scarily lifesize.)

  2. 2  sw  April 25, 2012, 9:04 pm 

    Not particularly easy on the eye or subtle, or entirely relevant to your post, but the message is clear enough and worth making: http://www.slowpokecomics.com/.....dgive.html

  3. 3  Chris Lloyd  May 13, 2012, 2:25 am 

    “Actually paying tax so that all members of your society might benefit is not philanthropic” because it is compulsory. Philanthropic donations are additional and voluntary, which is why you get to decide where it goes.

    If I decide to give 75% of my income to charity, would you still charge me 40% tax on my whole income? If I decide not to accept income and instead give it away then it is not income!

    It seems to offend the people on this blog that philanthopists get more control over where their money goes, rather than leaving it to the gubbment. This only becomes a serious problem if most of the tax-paying public decided to give most of their money away – not very likely. And even then, the problem is circumscribing charitable status more carefully, not the tax break.

  4. 4  Steven  May 14, 2012, 1:51 pm 

    If I decide to give 75% of my income to charity, would you still charge me 40% tax on my whole income?

    Yes.

    If I decide not to accept income and instead give it away then it is not income!

    Er, yes it is. You can’t give it away unless you first have it.

    It seems to offend the people on this blog that philanthopists get more control over where their money goes, rather than leaving it to the gubbment.

    I don’t see anyone complaining that it is “offensive”, but it does, as I wrote above, undermine the justice of the tax system as a whole. And they’re not “philanthropists” if they’re doing it to avoid tax.

  5. 5  Sohail  May 22, 2012, 6:28 am 

    Steven,

    I wholly agree: Philanthropists who avoid tax for that saintly glow are effectively tax cheats. But If I can just press you a little more on this, what precisely does it mean to say ‘it undermines the justice of the tax system as a whole’? What does “justice” entail here? Because as you know the standard counter-argument to that position is to to say that what they’re doing is perfectly legal, and thereby just.



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