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Tragedy has befallen Notre Dame de Paris this week, but we can be confident that the 13th-century Gothic Cathedral will rise again from the ashes. The French government estimates that it will cost $505 million to rebuild the interior and roof. Wealthy Europeans such as Francois Henri Pinault, owner of Gucci and Saint Laurent, and Bernard Arnault, owner of Louis Vuitton’s parent company, among others have pledged close to $1 billion combined as of Tuesday. The Walt Disney Co. has even promised to donate $5 million toward the cathedral’s restoration as well.
This massive influx in donations marks a triumph of free society and individualism, something we need more of if we are to preserve or — in Notre Dame’s case — rebuild historical sites around the world. This is not to diminish the smaller donations toward Notre Dame’s rebuilding efforts, but to highlight that extreme wealth is not a zero-sum game. Wealth benefits not only the rich, but society as a whole when it is invested and donated rather than taxed.
Governments across the world are already in debt and running massive annual deficits. They are not trustworthy stewards of financial resources. Higher taxes and government spending aren’t the answer to society’s ills, but policies that facilitate economic growth are. As we’re seeing right now in Paris, individual donors are more than capable of addressing societal problems without government coercion.
Since the Renaissance, when dramatic new artistic techniques were born, the free exchange of abundant wealth has contributed to flourishing art and culture. Take, for example, the patronage that was a hallmark of the Italian Renaissance. When wealthy bankers funded the artistic exploits of painters and sculptors the likes of Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo. Without wealthy proponents of the arts, the world would look much different today.
Again, in the 19th century, wealthy industrialists such as Cornelius Vanderbilt and Andrew Carnegie invested heavily in both philanthropy and the arts. Without them, we wouldn’t have the universities that bear their names, and we would be without the advancements not only in art and culture, but in science and engineering.
Even in the case of government-run entities, wealthy donors have often made them possible from the start. Without generous support from James Smithson, founding donor of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., the case could be made that the everyday American’s access to scientific and historical knowledge would be diminished. Just a few years ago, billionaire philanthropist David Rubenstein donated $7.5 million directly toward repairing the Washington Monument following the 2011 earthquake. His donation accounted for half of the project’s budget.
Nowadays, wealthy billionaires such as Bill Gates and Warren Buffett have founded some of the most influential philanthropic organizations ever with their own money. Mr. Gates and Mr. Buffett are way off-base when they call for higher taxes, but they deserve tremendous credit for their track record of charitable endeavors. At the same time, companies like Mr. Gates’ Microsoft have made affordable computer software a reality, which has led to a more interconnected and prosperous world economy.
At a time when it’s viewed as somehow “wrong” to be successful and make a profit, we should push back against such a warped narrative. Wealth has benefitted not only the arts and culture throughout human history, but free society itself. Wealthy societies are free societies, the evidence is clear.
Contrary to today’s assaults in the media on profit-making, the wealthy business owners making contributions to Notre Dame’s restoration deserve praise. Their efforts may also bring about a renewed focus on historical preservation, not as a government directive, but by individuals taking it upon themselves to contribute more toward protecting cultural heritage sites around the globe.
We should commend charitable giving and philanthropy, and we could stand to encourage more of it. Government can’t do everything and individuals can surely help. It’s up to individuals, rather than bureaucracies, to ensure we can experience history for the centuries to come.
Just like the medieval Europeans did countless times in the wake of disaster, Notre Dame will be rebuilt. Thanks to the wealth inherent in free societies, Notre Dame will likely be rebuilt faster than it could have been in centuries past.
• Adam Brandon is president of FreedomWorks.