Jane Mayer’s excellent piece in this past week’s New Yorker about the brothers Koch, oil billionaires who’ve donated hundreds of millions to nonprofits promoting right-wing causes, finally clarified for the Nonprofiteer her unease at Bill Gates’s campaign to persuade billionaires to donate half their estates to charity. It’s not a question of who has or hasn’t taken the pledge, though that’s an entertaining parlor game. Nor is it the fact that the generosity of extremely wealthy people may not be what the rest of us have in mind when we hear the word “charity.” (The Kochs’ “charity,” for instance, is a term of art encompassing donations to all kinds of institutions, predominantly think-tanks churning out rationales for the economic interests of wealthy people and front groups to make it appear that defending those economic interests is the political will of the non-wealthy majority.)
What’s troubling about the billionaires’ pledge remains so even when the receiving causes are unexceptionable. Gates, for instance, has very generously underwritten substantial efforts by the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. Good for him, and for the world.
But…Even the best-intentioned best-directed private donations are a way for moneyed people to work their will on the public, while the rest of us have nothing but the vote. And when the level of contributions is discussed in fractions of $1 billion, it’s no longer charity within a democracy: it’s benevolent dictatorship.
Maybe our country should be giving less to treat AIDS et al and more to eradicate infant and maternal mortality through the UN Population Fund; maybe not. That’s a decision to be made by the people of the United States, through our government. It’s really not a decision for a single person.
Why not? Well, for starters, the “single person” in question is a billionaire, and thus always a man. That means almost by definition that the highest levels of charitable giving will overlook women, though we constitute more than a majority of the population. And if that’s the case—if society’s needs are met by individual whim, instead of collective decisions about the greatest good for the greatest number—then what, actually, is left of self-government?
Of course, billionaires have plenty of assistance in the task of allowing economic power to trump political will. The Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United, holding that corporations are “persons” with First Amendment rights violated by limits on their campaign spending, already put the nation quite a way down that road. But somehow it’s worse when something that sounds so benign—”half my estate to charity, because I’ve been so fortunate”—actually translates as “I set the agenda for the future of this country, because I’ve been so fortunate.”
What we really want from billionaires is for them to pay a lot more in income taxes: say, the 87 percent of taxable income paid in 1954, or even the 70 percent paid at the start of the 1980s. And then we as a group can decide where our group’s money goes. All contribute, all decide.
And what we really want from billionaires’ heirs is for them to pay the 77 percent estate tax rate in effect in 1941, or even the 70 percent estate tax rate in effect in 1976. (And let’s not hear any nonsense about “death taxes.” The dead aren’t the ones paying.) Why shouldn’t people who get money by inheritance have to pay taxes on it, just like people who get it by working?
Merely to ask that question is to answer it: no democratic society decides that people who don’t work should be privileged over those who do. Societies like that are called “aristocracies,” and all those so-called Constitutional Originalists running around hijacking elections by screaming about excessive taxation should take a moment to remember that our Constitution was designed precisely to interfere with the establishment of a government by inheritance.
The Constitution prohibits not once but twice the granting of any title of nobility; but the Framers didn’t rest there. They fought to cripple and ultimately abolish entail and primogeniture, the primary devices by which English law kept family fortunes together. Why? Because they realized that, if you’re founding a republic, it’s really not a good idea to let money keep piling up generation after generation in the same few pairs of hands.
Self-governing societies can’t operate on noblesse oblige, and societies that do aren’t truly self-governing. As Dr. Franklin said, “A republic—if you can keep it.”