Rebuilding Notre Dame

In the aftermath of the Notre Dame Cathedral fire in Paris, several billionaires have pledged hundreds of millions of dollars to rebuild. For many people, this was a wonderful, generous gesture and a tribute to the human spirit nearly as wonderful as the building they are pledging to help rebuild. However, I have noticed more and more that there are others — those who cannot find anything but fault in anything a wealthy person does — who are complaining that if they have the money to pledge sums as lofty as $100 million to rebuild an old cathedral, they the had the money to give to the poor.

The choice is not either 1) rebuild Notre Dame or 2) feed the poor. Notre Dame will get rebuilt. The question is: by whom? If these billionaires had not promised portions of their vast wealth to rebuilding the cathedral, the money would have come from somewhere, most likely from a combination of the French government and the Catholic Church, both of whom are bound to contribute anyway. Also, we would expect the average Catholic — indeed, the average person across Europe and the United States — to make contributions. We will no doubt see all of these factors coming together to fund the rebuilding. I would personally prefer to see billionaires freely donating their own money than the average French taxpayer donating directly (and by force) through the French government.

Those complaining about the billionaires’ contributions surely know this to some extent. So why are they complaining? Their argument is that the billionaires ought to “give back” to society because of all they have ostensibly taken from it. However, the economy is not a zero sum game. Entrepreneurial billionaires did not make their money by taking it from poor people. The poor don’t have enough money to take from them and get rich. Entrepreneurial billionaires — like all entrepreneurs — only retain 2% of the value they create with their entrepreneurial activities. That’s right, only 2%. The rest is distributed through market forces across the globe. 98% of the wealth created by Bill Gates is in the global economy — not just through jobs he created directly, but by making people’s lives better with his products. Literally trillions of dollars of economic value have been created by Bill Gates, enjoyed by practically everyone across the globe. As wonderful as his philanthropic activities are as he tries to give away the tiny, tiny proportion of the wealth he retained, Bill Gates did more to alleviate global poverty as the CEO of Microsoft than he will ever do as a philanthropist.

The elites don’t like to hear this, because they all think that the only legitimate way to get money is through gift-giving and tribute. Politicians of all stripes are all elites. They get government money through tribute paid by the citizens, and they use that tribute to grant gifts, either in subsidies to cronies, regulations to benefit cronies, or in welfare payouts as bribes to get votes. The important thing is that they are seen to be giving these gifts. This is true of all of the different kinds of elites, all of whom primarily participate in the gift economy, including artists, writers, social and natural scientists, scholars, and philosophers. All rely on patronage to do their work, and none are trying to “make a living” or to make an economic contribution. It’s art for art’s sake and science for the sake of pure knowledge. These are wonderful things, to be sure, but they don’t make any real economic contribution. And that’s fine. They don’t have to. They create value of a different kind, and those who rank artistic and scientific values highly will patronize artists and scientists, directly or indirectly.

I went off on this seeming tangent in order to explain one of the sources of the complaints against the billionaires’ pledges. However, since these billionaires are definitely engaging in philanthropy — participating in the gift economy —by making these pledges, this can only be part of the reason for the complaints. It goes beyond the fact that these billionaires didn’t get their money in the “right” way, according to the elites doing the complaining.

The driving force behind these complaint is really iconoclasm. The poor are pawns in this. They are the excuse for the iconoclasts to express their actual wish for the destruction of one of the great icons of Western civilization. It’s not love of the poor that drives them, but a deep and abiding hatred for mankind that is driving them. That, after all, is the source of all iconoclasm. They took secret delight in seeing Notre Dame burn, and they were disappointed that so much money could be raised so quickly with these pledges. This same misanthropy leads to resentment and envy toward success, greatness, and beauty, and these became interwoven in the pledges of billionaires to rebuild Notre Dame. Hating success, greatness, and beauty, they were disappointed to see the three rise in strength together.

Perhaps the rebuilding of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris will be a cultural turning point for the West. It is my hope that the iconoclasts continue to expose themselves for who they truly are — which they will, the more we let them speak. It’s not love of the poor that drives them, but hatred of mankind. It’s not lifting up the downtrodden that drives them, but tearing down all that is good and beneficial and beautiful to mankind. If you saw the burning of Notre Dame and felt anything else but horror — if you felt the least bit of delight, or even mere indifference — you are the misanthropes, the iconoclasts I’m talking about.

And deep down, you know it. You know what truly drives you. If you take offense to this article, it’s not because you’re being mischaracterized— it’s because someone is finally exposing you for who you truly are. It’s because someone is clearly identifying what it is people are seeing (and why they feel disgust at you) when you complain about the Notre Dame being rebuilt.