There is a new political debate raging here in the UK and this time, far from being about sleeze, greed, callous self-regard, the usual expertise of the leaders of modern British society, this debate is all up there in the clouds on the most elevated high moral ground where there is much huffing and puffing about the nobility and generosity of those very rich Brits who are among our leading charitable philanthropists. Horror of horrors, some of them exclaim, they are going to have some of the money they give to charity capped from tax relief. this is terrible, they claim, we will have to give less if we are going to be taxed on the money. Hang on a minute, what do these words philanthropy and charity actually mean? I looked them up.
The Philanthropy comes from the Greek: philos meaning ‘loving” and anthropos meaning ‘human being’ – oh right, so a philanthropist is really someone who loves humanity so much that he or she wants to improve the quality of human life. Hmm, no mention of tax relief here then.
Some people say that the first philanthropist was the greek titan, Prometheus who stole the fire of the gods to give to human beings to, yes, improve the quality of human life. Zeus, the king of the gods, didn’t decide to give Prometheus any tax relief, instead he chained him to a rock and sent one of his eagles to peck out his liver in a particularly nasty piece of daily torture.
So maybe philanthropy is supposed to hurt a bit not just be a way of sorting your taxable interests.
What about the other much used word, Charity. What does that really mean? Charity is defined in the dictionary as the act of benevolent giving or caring. Oh right, a bit like our old friend Prometheus again.
You don’t have to be a legendary figure from Greek mythology though to be a charitable philanthropist, apparently, Britain is full of them today if you listen to some of the argument over the new tax regulations in the latest Budget. What will happen, we are told, if philanthropists start losing out by having to pay more tax?
The famous 19th century philanthropist, one of the richest men in history, didn’t get his knickers, or long-johns, in a twist over taxation, he thought that it was every rich man’s duty to give to humanity and took it even further claiming that for a rich man to die rich was an act of sinfulness. His wealth was used, amongst other things, to establish the public library system in the USA. His words might give some of our current tax shy philanthorpists pause for thought or, if not that then it might make them pause maybe before they try to sound quite so high-minded:
‘Man does not live by bread alone. I have known millionaires starving for lack of the nutriment which alone can sustain all that is human in man, and I know workmen, and many so-called poor men, who revel in luxuries beyond the power of those millionaires to reach. It is the mind that makes the body rich. There is no class so pitiably wretched as that which possesses money and nothing else. Money can only be the useful drudge of things immeasurably higher than itself. Exalted beyond this, as it sometimes is, it remains Caliban still and still plays the beast. My aspirations take a higher flight. Mine be it to have contributed to the enlightenment and the joys of the mind, to the things of the spirit, to all that tends to bring into the lives of the toilers of Pittsburgh sweetness and light. I hold this the noblest possible use of wealth’.
Stanley Fink, the Conservative Party treasurer, is less high-minded: “If you have to pay out of your capital the tax on your income you give, it will put people off,” he said. He should know as he is not just a politician, he is also a very rich man who does give to charity and claim some of it back in tax relief – he is cautious with his own cash because he made his money out of those much criticised things known as Hedge Funds.