More Public Service Philanthrocapitalism

BY DOMINIC WIGHTMAN

Overhearing conversations in a restaurant is impolite. Nonetheless, it’s impossible not to. And far too frequently one hears “the Government must do this” and “the Government should pay for that”. Alas, I do not possess sufficient copies of Thomas Sowell to plonk down on the tables of these statists to change their collectivist tunes. (That’s the last time I book a table at The Gay Hussar.)

In America, philanthrocapitalism is a thing. Over here in the UK we look to Government not the private sector or to public donors to directly fund our key public services. Yes, philanthrocapitalism exists and there are incentives like Giftaid to inspire individual members of the public to cough up for good causes like the church roof appeal and village hall revamp, but the UK tax system – unlike the American one – does not powerfully or significantly encourage large-scale corporate direct giving as the tax alternative it should be.

Well, to be a total hypocrite within three paragraphs, the Government really should.

The current underfunding of the UK Police Force is one such area where funding from private sources should be enabled and encouraged. With Austerity all forces have had to cut police numbers – they spend most of their money on staff costs (wages and overtime), and so have focused on reducing this expenditure in order to cut costs. In some areas, the police are now seriously struggling (some richer neighbourhoods in London have even taken to employing privately-funded street security officers in their place). Although their numbers are rising, the security services too could do with extra cash – as they step up to the plate to stake out and face down the mounting threat from Islamist extremists and other cranks.

Yet there is no police or SIS infrastructure charity – nothing that allows members of the public to privately pay directly for front-line costs (Bobbies on the beat, surveillance centres, more operatives). There are Police Benevolent funds, Police Memorial funds and there’s the Police Mutual. But no mechanism for a business to directly pump donations into front-line services it particularly wants to fund.

Instead we have myopic visionaries like Corbyn urging the Government to raise taxes.

Private financing of some aspects of the police force have happened. Look at Lord Ashcroft’s ongoing support of Crimestoppers. But today – in an age of crowdfunding and daily sponsored runs and garage sales, at a time when large businesses are sitting on unused capital and pay millions to tax-saving advisory firms – wouldn’t it be wise for direct funding of front-line services to supplement government shortfalls? The marketing benefits for companies supporting front-line services could be huge. OK, the Thames Police launch HMS BHS might well sink but Arcadia Group Firefighting equipment would be put into regular use.

Giving privately – with no strings attached – is a human trait. Private donors do not need to influence public bodies just because they have donated to them. Thus private donors to a police force will not necessarily corrupt that force if enough checks and balances are put in place. If the police reach out with a shopping list, why can’t we raise the money privately so they have what they need without having those funds passed via the Government?

One has to think back to the Victorians – compared to today a small state government (at home of course) – to see ambitious and imaginative philanthrocapitalism and philanthropy at work. Education was a popular cause. Given the squalour of the slums, housing was also a priority for many philanthrocapitalists. The Victorians promoted ‘5 per cent philanthropy’, where donors could invest their money for a good cause while receiving a respectable but below-market rate of return. Comparable sorts of socially responsible investment exist today but it’s directed at charities which do not fund front-line services, except providing certain fortunate NHS Trusts with vital equipment.

It’s a given that some aspects of our lives need government. One is the army. But why can’t the public raise funds privately for better army accommodation, for example, just as the public give generously to Help for Heroes?

A sponsored run (more philanthropy admittedly than philanthrocapitalism) would seem somewhat more attractive as a destination of charity if the donor knew that they were funding surveillance of a terror suspect for a year. More people might get off their behinds. A business whose truck drivers get daily threatened by economic migrants would surely be keen to help raise funds for the under-staffed ports authorities. £1.3M was raised for poor little Charlie Gard – think what we could raise if we as individuals and businesses were focused enough, say on sponsoring individual doctors and surgeons through medical school. Would those doctors not feel more committed to staying and working in the UK if they knew their sponsors personally?

Private charities I volunteer for are hesitant to accept Government money and prefer to apply for private grants because of the red tape that comes with accepting Government donations. That says it all, really. Public services should be less hamstrung by regulation when they take private donations and – in diverse ways – become more publicly accountable as private donors are more motivated to expect immediate outcome from their donations.

Tax is dull. One pays it begrudgingly like one’s electricity bill. Why not make funding public services a radiant, tangible experience? Like sponsoring a donkey and seeing a small plaque up on the stable door bearing one’s name – satisfaction – why don’t we see our tax donations listed by name alongside hospital wards or on police cars? Surely some of the Islamist crazies would love to see how many British bullets used in Afghanistan they have bought with the VAT they have paid on their lifetime’s penchant for Mars Bars?

Or is Government still about increasing control and power? Are we, the People, not to be allowed to spend our funds directly on the public services we want? Must we continue to be obliged to pay too many tax pounds for inefficient Government services, which by their nature soon become underfunded as the apparatchiks in the Government departments running them lack incentive, inevitably multiply (thus taking potential private market growers and revenue payers out of the market) and don’t give a hoot about efficiency as long as the free tea and biscuits are flowing and they get paid.

Time for a rethink. Now that Brexit has thrown so many opportunities for rethinks in the mix.

Philanthrocapitalism works. It leads to private accounting of cause and effect of funding of services. That in turn highlights the inefficiencies of Government use of tax pounds, motivating Government staff into action as they fail to defend their inefficiency. That in turn leads to less Government taxation, more philanthrocapitalism and less unnecessary Government power. And we’re all better off as a consequence. (It also happens to lead to less do-gooding socialists – win-win.)

In the meantime, if you hear a Corbynite or restaurant companion whining on about how the Government must do this or that and whining about capitalism, then spring the word Philanthrocapitalism on them as a viable alternative. Let them know that the more the public controls public services and holds power, the more honey there will be for them as the apparatchiks are gradually replaced by robots. And really do advise them to read some Thomas Sowell.

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