As I Please

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Bring on the Philanthropists?

It's standard practice among daily newspapers to have at least one or two regular columnists who are at odds with that daily's general editorial stance. So it's no surprise that the illustrious progressive daily the UK Guardian has at least one, Simon Jenkins. Not just any right-wing scribbler, he was likely taken on by the Guardian in 2005 (who made the offer first I cannot say) because of his distinguished background in journalism (receiving a knighthood in 2004 for services to the trade in 2004 among other things), and because he is not predictably on the right on all issues. But in one of his latest gems, "The welfare state is waning. Bring on the philanthropists" (June 28), he certainly is, even radically or better reactionarily so. Unless you ignore the news media entirely you have no doubt heard of the donation by Warren Buffet of $ 31 billion to Bill Gates to further enrich his and his wife's charitable foundation. As Jenkins puts it, it was a case of the world's second-richest man giving most of his money to the world's richest man, and for what it's going for, all well and good. What are not so good are the conclusions Jenkins draws from the event.
Jenkins pronounces in his commentary, "The 19th century was the age of capitalism, the 20th the age of socialism. The 21st is to be the age of charity, or so we are given to hope." Why would we hope for such a thing? Because, Jenkins informs his readers, "the British public sector has lost the moral supremacy it enjoyed under socialism in the 20th century...Power has drifted away from contact with people, and public service has been contracted out to to the private sector." International government bodies are "pampered" with "barely accountable power...As their moral standing dwindles in the wreckage of Africa and the Middle East, they will be supplanted by the ad hoc charity of the private sector".
What will no doubt be obvious to progressive readers if not apparently to Jenkins himself is that any decline of the public sector domestically and internationally has been largely brought about by government itself. As he says "To [UK PM Tony] Blair government is invariably defective and in need of change, which can only come from the private sector." But why should government leaders think this way, unless their minds have been influenced by the sophistries of the New Right, as Blair's obviously has been? To jump from Buffet's and the Gates' international philanthropy to the conclusion that the welfare state and public enterprise will eventually and inevitably be replaced by the charity of millionaires and billionaires as well as less wealthy private individuals is a sophistry in itself. In his "analysis" Jenkins lacks a sense and, in this case apparently, knowledge of history. What Buffett and the Blairs are and have been doing is more or less in accordance with that old robber baron and avowed Social Darwinist Andrew Carnegie's essay "The Gospel of Wealth". That was written in 1889 when the United States was a plutocracy. Since today and for the last decade or so the United States has devolved into a plutocracy not seen since the 1920s the philanthropy Jenkins acclaims is highly appropriate to that country, but not to others where such a degeneration has not taken place i.e. most of the industrialized world. In the U.S. and elsewhere I doubt very much that the mega- or giga-rich will follow Buffett's and the Gates' example any more than did their 19th century counterparts follow Carnegie's.
Mine is no doubt only the latest of attacks on Sir Simon's silliness. Fortunately for Guardian readers a reply was made a week later by one of the paper's deputy editors, Alison Benjamin. The second last paragraph of her detailed rebuttal (applying mainly to Britain's wealthy) is particularly telling.


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