One can understand the sentiment behind the rush to repair and rebuild the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. As it became engulfed in flames on Apr. 15, we were reminded that at nearly 900 years old, it was, and is, regarded as one of the iconic structures of Western culture, always retaining a majesty to contrast with the rapidly changing trends and stylings of the modern world. Perhaps this is why the world’s elite were so quick to respond to the devastation: it took them less than a week to raise roughly $1 billion to rebuild it.
Equally understandable, though, is the critical reaction to this gargantuan sum being raised so rapidly by global aristocrats. Saving an old church is great, even noble, but the West is suffering under massive income inequality, a crumbling social safety net and fast-vanishing middle classes. The ever-increasing concentration of wealth, more and more in the hands of fewer and fewer billionaire oligarchs, bequeaths us a class of people controlling such vast sums of money that they’re free to spend lavishly on themselves, and on pet projects, and never miss the money. And for what? Bragging points and legacy.
Two French billionaires, François-Henri Pinault and Bernard Arnault, are putting up €100 million and €200 million, respectively, to rebuild Notre Dame. Scions of France’s wealthiest aristocratic families, these gifts were made in what was essentially an oligarchical pissing contest. Like the other international rich who are donating, it’s partly for the honor of being associated with restoring one of the world’s most treasured landmarks. The French elite also have a long history of financing the reconstruction of prestigious buildings (and reaping the subsequent tax savings for their charitable giving).
None of this is lost on the everyday Parisians who are currently being roiled, weekend after weekend, by the “yellow jacket” protests. The protestors are against their government’s elimination of a wealth tax and against proposals to raise taxes on working people, among other austerity measures. One would have to be tone deaf and Trumpist not to understand their grievances. How can a society be healthy when the elite can raise almost $1 billion in pocket change to repair a pretty church while the very same elite can use the law to avoid paying taxes? Governments like France’s keep telling citizens there’s limited or no funding for healthcare, pensions, education and infrastructure, all as fortunes pour in for Notre Dame’s reconstruction. Worldwide trust in civic institutions is at or near an all-time low. No wonder.
The wealthiest feel — incorrectly — that they fulfill their civic duty by repairing beautiful buildings and old artwork. These aristocrats still view charitable giving through the lens of Andrew Carnegie’s 1889 article “Gospel of Wealth.” In it, Carnegie argued that it was the duty of the wealthy to provide for the rest of society through charity, to make millionaires serve as the “trustees of the poor.” Carnegie, and the legions of aristocrats since his time, have been infatuated with this approach, embracing charitable giving as a superior means of providing societal care rather than to pay high taxes on their wealth. I have previously written about how much the wealthy contribute to funding arts and culture projects that otherwise would have little chance of continued existence. Charitable giving is undeniably a good endeavor for the wealthiest to undertake.
Still, the money raised to repair Notre Dame — how it was raised, and from whom — is a perfect microcosm of our problems. What’s the point of spending lavishly to repair an old monument when the great, great majority of our contemporary countrymen face stagnant wages, poor healthcare, broken school systems and stifled economic prospects? In France, as in America, regressive taxation has led to social unrest because people believe that the wealthy do not, and will not, contribute to society in the ways that they should. Upward of $1 billion on a project like Notre Dame does little to alleviate feelings of frustration among the working class.
Modern conservatives who, we know, are paid by the aristocrats to do their bidding, still believe that levying higher taxes on the wealthy is an inefficient and counterproductive way to reallocate wealth. They seem stuck and unwavering in their centuries-old belief that big government and high taxes are bad, that returning social programs to private civic and religious institutions is good — a better way to care for the needs of a society. Never mind the unimpeachable evidence that in Carnegie’s day, when social programs were primarily handled by church organizations and private fraternal societies, civic welfare was drastically more limited and of significantly lower quality than it is today.
This is a story as old as class: the elites pine for a societal model in which the non-elites feel nothing but gratitude for whatever crumbs of charity are sprinkled around them, and the non-elites are now simply having none of it. To paraphrase Upton Sinclair, perhaps our aristocrats don’t understand the needs of the non-elite because their fortunes depend on keeping the non-elite ignorant.
We don’t need to be content with this. We don’t need to be blind to the fruits of charitable giving. But it is also OK for the common person to look upon the restoration of a great church, a monument to hubris and legacy gifted in the blink of a billionaire’s eye, and believe that such exorbitance would be better spent on hospitals, classrooms or clothing on the backs of the poor. The common man has witnessed this, time and again: the people possessed of the financial capacity to restore a great church are the same people who simultaneously, nakedly, support a political agenda that is antagonistic toward our safety net and wants to defund it. History teaches us that the tension will only build.
Charitable giving is not inherently wrong. Society should be grateful to those who give back. But in Notre Dame, however, we have a powerful new illustration of what a poor substitution is charity for a publicly funded safety net. The aristocratic class once again see value in a vanity project over fulfilling Carnegie’s original vision. All the pristinely decorated churches and museums in the world count for little if society hasn’t education, nourishment and stability enough to enjoy them. If the wealthy really wishes to pay their due, there are better ways to do so.