Friday, March 27, 2009

Money - 5. Charity

On the 23rd October 2009, I'm going to set light to a £50 note and witness it burn. Some will say, as they did when I burnt £20 last year, and £10 the year before, that I should give the cash to charity. And that burning money is wasteful and selfish.

But burning cash is never wasteful.
Well, its never any more wasteful than burning any other piece of printed paper. The money still exists after burning. The only thing lost is my 'ownership' of the money; ownership, or more accurately 'custodianship', that is signalled by my holding of the cash. In terms of my own emotions, feelings and thoughts about the money burning ritual, its important to me that what's left is just ashes. I don't want a sticker, badge, pen or a red nose. I don't want a warm glow of moral superiority. I want nothing.
For purity, and to subvert the transactional sphere as completely as possible, the money burning ritual must destroy my custodianship of the £50.

And burning cash is not selfish.
I can be selfish. I expect we all can. Some people say that our genes are selfish. And depending on how you look at things, any behaviour can be seen as selfish; it depends upon your perspective. But burning cash can never be selfish. I give up something I own, of known value, in return for nothing; that's the definition of a selfless act. I could still be selfish, but the ritual of burning cash is inherently selfless.
Burning cash releases money from me, and me from money. It helps me understand my relationship with money more clearly.
None of what I've said though, would I expect, convince anyone that I shouldn't give the money to charity. It would be easier and possibly wiser for me to lie to you here, to protect myself. I could say that even though I burn money once a year, I give a far greater amount to worthy causes. But I don't. In fact, I don't give to charity at all.
I've put a lot about myself in the public sphere since the internet came along. But this is the first time I've confessed to this in public. In fact other than immediate family (who respectfully disagree with my position), I have only had one conversation about not giving to charity. This was at a seminar at the Institute of Economic Affairs in 2000 (the IEA is a libertarian think-tank). A small group of us huddled together and extending a conversation from the seminar, we admitted to each other in hushed tones, that we didn't give - on principle. I'll try to give some form of explanation as to what those principles are (for me).
Charity is seen as something good. There is no need for me to write here about the fact that charities can be inefficient or corrupt. Any organisation of human beings can display these qualities. I'm sure everyone understands that. It is the act of charity itself which I cannot allow myself to support.
Words used to describe economic exchange are laden with morality; give, sell, buy, take. It is better to give, we are told, than to receive. Quite why this folk wisdom is so ingrained in our thinking is a mystery to me; after all, every giver needs a taker. Nevertheless, giving is seen as the morally superior act. By giving we cast ourselves in the role of God. We judge who should receive our gifts. We want to give only to those who are worthy. We must do so, the thinking goes, because Money is a limited resource. And we don't want to waste it.
But of course, money is not a limited resource. Its not like coal or oil, wheat or cotton, guns or diamonds; its a force.
Charity is a way to transfer that force to others about whom we feel guilty. Sometimes we feel guilty because we feel responsible for their plight, and sometimes we feel guilty just because we have stuff and they don't. But by transferring ownership of the 'money-force' through charity, we make it harder for them to understand their own relationship with money. We cannot bear to see their suffering, their otherness, so we give away our power to make them more like us - except not quite as good. Charity is always more about the giver than the receiver.
Charitable exchange sustains social imbalance in a way that commercial exchange does not.
According to current wisdom our economic world is built on self-interested, profit maximising, rational behaviour. The rational economic man underpins our understanding of capitalism. The reason you have running water, sewers, cars, buses, schools and everything else that we associate with our modern world is because we look after number one in our economic exchanges. Personally I don't believe this story - I think that in most economic exchanges, by most people, most of the time, what we seek is a 'fair' exchange. Nevertheless, economic rationality is seen by politicians, academics, economists and businessmen as the right way to be. And yet, every now and then, we completely invert this form of behaviour and decide to give money away. I seem to be on my own as finding this very strange.
If you're not familiar with economics, or if you're too young to remember Maggie Thatcher, let me push the point. The modern world believes that the wealth of nations is built upon the self-interested behaviour of its citizens. Adam Smith, a canny scot, wrote a book about it called 'The Wealth of Nations' in 1776. It was Maggie's favourite.
And yet, when we are faced with situations in which resources are desperately needed, we abandon what the majority regard as self-evident, and instead revert to charity. I say revert, because charity itself, of course, has a long ignoble history. The church used to like to conduct it's economic affairs (and those of its members) by the use of taxes (they called them tithes) and the handing out of charity to the deserving. You'd grow your food, tend your livestock, and then give some to your lord for military protection, and some to the Church for spiritual protection. What was left, you'd feed your family with and maybe, if there was a surplus, you could sell or exchange it. Giving charity and playing God have been bedfellows for a very long time.
The growth of commerce subverted the power relationships in society. Money is seen by some as something negative because it corrodes social bonds. In Britain the wealth created by mercantalism enabled the rich to hire servants. The demand for servants, and the desire for money, drove (mainly) young women from the bosom of their family, into the service of another. The positive view of Money is that it liberates us. Those young women stopped giving away their labour for free to their families, and chose to sell it to the rich, sowing the seeds of liberation for future generations.
Destruction and liberation can be the two sides of the same coin. A coin that is created for commercial exchange.
Charitable gifts are bestowed by those who have too much, to those who have too little. Commercial exchange helps those who have too much, to trade their surpluses for things they need or want. To believe in the righteousness of commercial exchange, over charitable gifts, you only have to believe that everyone -no matter how poor, how ill-educated, or how disadvantaged - has something to offer you. To reach a fair exchange is better for both parties.
Charity is a quicksand that pulls the poor further into poverty with each donation.
The deification of the charitable act impacts upon our social, as well as our economic, lives. The positive feelings bestowed upon the giver by our warped view of the sanctity of charity serve to stratify society, creating a class system of 'goodness'. In other words, and rather like in Catholicism, sins can be absolved by charitable donation.

Corporations can behave appallingly, and then purchase public goodwill with a charitable donation. A thousand bad things done to a thousand people will result in a thousand individual voices of disquiet. One good thing done for red nose day will result in the good will of millions. If you are an amoral corporate body this seems like a good deal. If we want corporations to behave more like people and less like monsters, we need to change those incentives.
People are generally wise to the way corporations use the charitable act for their own ends. But for the individual, charity offers the opportunity for not just absolution, but redemption. Giving is in grained into the western judaeo-christian mentality. Christ gave his life for us; the ultimate act of charity that we seek to safely replicate each time we give up custodianship of our money-force. But each time we do so, we strike a secret bargain. A bargain that we may only barely be concious of, but one that is there for us, as it was for Christ.
We give, in order that we may be saved.
If you disagree with me - and in my experience of this issue, that will be the vast majority of you - please consider just one thing. You have custodianship of your money. You decide. As well as giving to charity, think deeply about to whom you lend your custodianship. It may be that the very poverty and distress you seek to cure with your gift, is caused by the actions of those you trust to act in loco parentis for your money-power.
To give blindly is as much a sin as to take knowingly.

That, my friends, is what I think. Be assurred though, should we ever be stuck on a desert island together I would share my food with you. I expect you'd do the same.

Here's what someone else thinks:
Charity must be recognized for what it is: another aspect of the institutionalized humiliation inherent in our economized existence which must be destroyed so we can fully live.
Against Charity - Feral Faun on the Insurgent Desire web site
Here is a link to the entire article

Read or download all of my Money essays here.

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