Peter York: Just be sure they pay their tax, too

British governments are profoundly equivocal about the rich now; they tend to be in awe of them

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There's no Peter York Foundation, and you're no one without one. When I read that Lord Sainsbury had given £25m to the British Museum it was another reminder to thousands of comfortable bourgeois like me that the seriously rich live in another, deeply annoying world. Not only are they immensely, unfathomably, increasingly richer than the rest of us; but now they're saying they can also do miles more good, at a stroke, than governments or the string-saving world of our contributions to charities and NGOs. In the Billionaire Boys' Club world (it's overwhelmingly men) some hyper-achievers feel they can fix things quickly with all the economies of scale that hyper-lumps of money bring and all the efficiencies of their prodigious capabilities.

In saying all that, sour and sarky as it sounds, I'm reflecting a widespread and characteristically British attitude towards the global plutocracy and American can-doism. An attitude that's slightly shy of speaking its name at the moment in the face of government cuts to things we like (we don't really want the rich to take their ball elsewhere just now).

Actually, I feel quite pro-Lord Sainsbury. He's done real public service, his family have given about a billion already to causes they care about, Sainsbury's is a real-things business, based here and presumably paying its whack in UK taxes. Certainly employing people on British wages. You can't be sure about that with today's global plutocrats.

The Americans are more annoying, though Bill and Melinda Gates seem all right in their po-faced way, and I really admire Michael Bloomberg. But the implication, regularly seized on by every neo-con propagandist outfit going, is that here's another argument for "rolling back the boundaries of the state" (and for billionaires and their giant corporations to set the social agenda and get even better UK tax breaks). If billionaires are so good at things why bother with Washington or Whitehall and the income they raise from taxes? Let's leave it to rich men. Rich men have rights too, including the right to be seen as noble and generous.

If they're richer, more dynamic, more capable than the rest of us, and better than their greedy peers, what could they achieve? Most Americans, as John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge pointed out in Right Nation, are really, really not like us and don't have these sour and sarky thoughts (or only bi-coastal liberals do). Many of them are prepared to give billionaires a hearing. They believe in Remarkable Individuals because they're deeply suspicious of Big Government. And we should give them a hearing, too.

Arguments about hyper-philanthropy depend on what you're expecting it to achieve, whether it's filling tightly defined "market failure" gaps – the arts are an obvious case with the relatively subtle Sainsbury spend a hugely useful example – or particular government failures (the tyranny of numbers, an eye on electoral appeals), or whether it's proposed as the Answer to Everything.

The Answer to Everything case doesn't stand much historical analysis. No amount of Carnegie Libraries or Bourneville paternalism would have moved this country from 19th- to 20th-century standards and expectations. Just look at Mayhew surveys of the poor and you know it was never enough. So, the issue is how to acknowledge private philanthropy, evaluate it – sorting the long-term commitments from the marvellous party stuff – and be completely clear about the limitations of plutocratic powers and stamina.

British governments are profoundly equivocal about the rich now; they tend to be in awe of them. Hence the idea – it could just as easily be a New Labour one – that Sir Philip Green can solve all Whitehall's procurement problems at a stroke on a Wednesday afternoon, because he's so brilliant at procuring frocks. It's a debate really worth having, with everything – prejudices and all – on the table. I think people like Michael Bloomberg and Bill Gates are probably up for it and up to it. I'm not so sure about the rest of them.

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