The fire at Notre Dame cathedral last week made a profound impact on people all over the world. Many responded by opening their wallets to help pay for its restoration: £650 million was donated in just ten days.
This generosity is now causing controversy, because some people feel it’s wrong for charity givers to prioritise restoring a building over improving human lives. The gilets jaunes protesters have started waving banners that translate as “we can also burn”. In the UK, some Twitter users are angrily wondering why the Grenfell tower fire, which killed 72 people, didn’t get the same level of donations.
The argument illustrates two of the main tensions in any debate about the economy: where resources should be funneled and how much control we as individuals should have over these decisions.
In the UK, a range of things happen. On one hand, we are obliged to pay taxes on our income and cannot personally determine where that money is spent. A Brit who doesn’t support (or use) the NHS still has to pay tax money towards it as long as society as a whole keeps voting to fund it.
On the other hand, we are not obliged to donate any of our income to charity, but if we do we get to decide exactly which charity to support, regardless of how ‘worthy’ other people think the cause is. And a look at the numbers show that human lives are not always our top priority. While four of the five most-donated-to charities in the UKare human-focused (specifically on vaccinations, vulnerable children and cancer research), the second best-funded overall is The Arts Council of England.
People also donate more money to the RSPCA and the RSPB (charities for animals and birds) than they do to the British Heart Foundation, Great Ormond Street Hospital or Wateraid. Whether that’s right or wrong depends on who you ask. And indeed, some people would argue that art, animals and nature are all things that themselves significantly enrich human lives.
So how do we get what we need to live? Our livelihoods are our own personal answer to that question, whether it be job in a factory, setting up a start-up, or taking time out to travel. But the economy we live in affects the choices we have in setting up our livelihoods, and we rely on so many other workers around us to be able to do what we do… how do we get the balance right?