Rebuilding Notre Dame more than vanity project

Smoke and flames rise during the fire at Notre-Dame Cathedral in central Paris on April 15 last. The campaign to raise money to rebuild the landmark building is not a ‘vanity project’ for the uber-rich. Private charity is an absolute good, says our columnist.

Many believe money would be better spent elsewhere but even non-believers should be able to appreciate the value of a place of solace in a bewildering world, writes Stephen L Carter

Is it a waste of money to spend the billions of euro that will be needed to rebuild Notre-Dame de Paris? A lot of people seem to consider the whole thing no more than a “vanity project” for the uber-rich.

I disagree. One reason is that I’m not so keen on telling other people how to spend their money. Another is that I think the cathedral is important. But most of all, it’s because I consider private charity an absolute good.

The burning has occasioned a remarkable outpouring of pledges from around the world — including from some of the wealthiest families in France and elsewhere. So far, more than €1bn has been promised toward what is expected to be a lengthy effort at reconstruction. The cost might well run as high as €8bn, most of which probably will not be covered by insurance.

Nevertheless, social media has been rich with furious suggestions of places the billions might be better spent. In Paris itself, the gilets jaunes were back in the streets last weekend, having decided not to take an Easter break from their regular protests. In a bizarrely unfortunate choice of symbols, they chose to set small fires of their own along the route of the march — fires, the Associated Press reported, that “appeared to be a collective plea to French President Emmanuel Macron’s government” for help..

But I cannot help wondering whether we would see the same level of anger at the large pledges had the spire that toppled in flames been the Eiffel Tower. It’s hard to believe that any popular movement would have taken the view that reconstructing the world’s most iconic landmark was a social wrong.

If this is so, then the fury stems not from the fact that the wealthy are contributing money to rebuilding a national treasure, but from the fact that the national treasure they seek to rebuild happens to be a cathedral. (Although the cathedral is owned by the government of France.)

Besides, charitable giving is an absolute good — not only for the sake of the causes the giver chooses, but also for the promotion of diversity of values that it represents and perpetuates. If all giving were subject to public whim, only the majority’s favoured charities would be funded. Thus the claim that the contributions would better be spent on X is something of a non sequitur.

Not only does private funding fill gaps that officialdom will miss — often intentionally — it also stimulates more private funding.

It will be interesting to see if there is an outpouring of contributions to rebuild the churches destroyed in the Sri Lanka church bombings. Picture: AFP

The Notre Dame example illustrates the way that the competition among the wealthy to outgive each other reflects the well-known signalling effect of charity: If the very rich are sometimes ashamed of their conspicuous consumption, they can show off their wealth in a socially acceptable way by the size of their contributions. So once a single billionaire pledges millions of euro to rebuild the cathedral, it follows that others will, too, which is in fact what has happened.

Moreover, private contributions can point out directions for our own donations that we might not have considered. A theory of giving associated with the economist James Andreoni holds that people make donations because of the “warm glow” of knowing that they have helped — a satisfaction that occurs even when the gift is anonymous. We give because giving makes us feel good.

This view helps explain a happy spillover from the outpouring of large contributions to rebuild Notre Dame: the outpouring of small contributions to rebuild elsewhere.

In the weeks before the fire at Notre Dame, three black churches in Louisiana were burned to the ground. On the day before the news of the calamity in Paris, a GoFundMe campaign to rebuild them had raised just $50,000. Three days later, the donations had risen to over $1m. Does anyone believe that the pledges would have reached seven figures had the disaster in Paris not made the issue of burned churches salient to potential givers?

One test of the salience theory will be whether there is an outpouring of contributions to rebuild the churches destroyed in this weekend’s horrific bombing attacks on churches and hotels in Sri Lanka, which claimed hundreds of lives. One cannot seriously argue, given the venues and the timing, that Christians were not the targets — a painful reminder that we often think too small when we announce confidently who counts as a minority and who gets persecuted.

More to the point, the decision to blow up churches constitutes an effort not merely to kill lots of people but to strip a community of one of its most visible symbols of unity. In the American South, black churches have been burned for as long as there have been black churches.

The point of such terror has always been intimidation; the response to such terror has always been a determination to rebuild.

Fundraising efforts aimed at rebuilding the churches destroyed in Sri Lanka are already underway. Restoring those churches, like restoring those destroyed in Louisiana, is important — and not just because the terrorists cannot be allowed to prevail.

Even sacred buildings destroyed or damaged in an accidental fire, such as Notre Dame, can have meaning for people who have no particular religious connection to them. Symbols matter; and they can be loved. And they can offer some refuge for those who seek a sense of peace and understanding in a bewildering world.

Stephen L Carter is a Bloomberg opinion columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to US Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.

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