Notre-Dame de Hypocrisie?

Artwork by Ang Hor Kheng

Since the fire of April 15th, armchair critics all over their living rooms have been doing what they do best—telling other people what they should do with their own money. Few asked why. Why did LVMH and Kering pledge €300 million towards the reconstruction of Notre-Dame? Just what do luxury goods and cathedrals have in common? This, and other interesting topics, will be covered in the second part of the article. But first, let’s answer some really stupid questions.

Since I despise hypotheticals and I couldn’t live with asking a stupid one for the sake of argument, I was grateful for finding this:

“If the ultra-rich can chuck in so many millions of euros for a building, then what stops them ending hunger and poverty?”

Oh, Aditya. Even though I truly am grateful for the assist, I have mixed feelings about it. See, normally I wouldn’t think that such an old, trite, weak argument deserved a response, but I equally recognise that the world will never be rid of stupidity, so it is up to each of us to fight it whenever we can. In that spirit, I shall try to point out why the one above is an asinine question.

Let’s just get this out of the way right now: what stops the rich from ending hunger and poverty?


First of all, the sum of €300 million is a drop in the bucket of global foreign aid (if that’s what we’re talking about), which in 2017 totalled $146.6 billion. That does not mean that it would not have helped: of course it could have. But the world, beyond the retina-display veil of online outrage, is a complex place. Finding the money to give is easy. But the deployment of those funds has to survive a thicket of misappropriation, corruption, administrative costs, bureaucracy and plain old politics.

In his 2012 book Why Nations Fail, MIT economist Daron Acemoglu gives us the sobering example of what happened to donations to Afghanistan after the attack of 2011 (it’s a longish quote, but it’s worth reading):

(…) Afghan people were longing to leave the Taliban behind. The international community thought that all that Afghanistan needed now was a large infusion of foreign aid. Scores of aid workers and their entourages arrived in town with their own private jets, NGOs of all sorts poured in to pursue their own agendas, and high-level talks began between governments and delegations from the international community. Billions of dollars were now coming to Afghanistan. (…) While much of the infrastructure remained in tatters, the first tranche of the money was used to commission an airline to shuttle around UN and other international officials. The next thing they needed were drivers and interpreters. So they hired the few English-speaking bureaucrats and the remaining teachers in Afghan schools to chauffeur and chaperone them around, paying them multiples of current Afghan salaries. As the few skilled bureaucrats were shunted into jobs servicing the foreign aid community, the aid flows, rather than building infrastructure in Afghanistan, started by undermining the Afghan state they were supposed to build upon and strengthen. Villagers in a remote district in the central valley of Afghanistan heard a radio announcement about a new multimillion-dollar program to restore shelter to their area. After a long while, a few wooden beams, carried by the trucking cartel of Ismail Khan, famous former warlord and member of the Afghan government, were delivered. But they were too big to be used for anything in the district, and the villagers put them to the only possible use: firewood. So what had happened to the millions of dollars promised to the villagers? Of the promised money, 20 percent of it was taken as UN head office costs in Geneva. The remainder was subcontracted to an NGO, which took another 20 percent for its own head office costs in Brussels, and so on, for another three layers, with each party taking approximately another 20 percent of what was remaining. The little money that reached Afghanistan was used to buy wood from western Iran, and much of it was paid to Ismail Khan’s trucking cartel to cover the inflated transport prices. It was a bit of a miracle that those oversize wooden beams even arrived in the village.

So what? Does nothing work? Of course not—there’s always something to be done. Some charities are more effective than others, for example.

But the point is, LVMH is not one of them.

What are they going to do, send the cash over to poor countries in monogrammed Louis Vuitton trunks? Or should they downsize operations and sack the the 83,000 staff they employ, 30% of which reside in France? Surely the author of the question above will recognise that this is not the best possible use of their money. Read: their money.

Look, I really, really didn’t want to bring the discussion to this place, but to my defence, I’m merely following the argument where it leads. Because there’s a super-simple way to end this whole boring exercise (so we can get to the interesting part below): it’s their money and they they choose how to use it. If you think this argument is superficial, perhaps the counter-argument will give you pause: if they aren’t the ones to choose the best use of their own money, who is? You? Me? The French government? Careful though, that’s a very slippery slope.

Modern capitalism was made possible by the recognition of private property and the rule of law. It was a legal framework which, even though in the beginning benefitted only the landed gentry, laid the foundations of all subsequent social progress: for John Locke “life, liberty and property” were to be discussed in the same breath. The point is that your life, liberty and property are yours—and yours alone.

The alternative is unpleasant.

Before I wade into more controversial territory, let us cover some common ground: nobody needs cathedrals.

If you don’t share such a firm grasp of the obvious, I would point out that the word cathedral

is derived from the French cathédrale, from the Latin cathedra (“seat”), from the Greek καθέδρα (“seat, bench”); it refers to the presence and prominence of the bishop’s or archbishop’s chair or throne, raised above both clergy and laity. The chair, on a raised dais, was the distinctive mark of a teacher or rhetor and thus symbolises the bishop’s role as teacher.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and boldly state that there is nothing to be learned from bishops.

Having removed the intellectual component from the equation, we’re left with ‘an architecturally interesting building with a lot of bling’. There’s quite a few buildings that would fit this description, but only a precious few are able to provoke the undeniable public emotional response that we have witnessed over the last few days. Granted, some of it was a blatant case of bandwagoning from people who needed to demonstrate artistic sensibility, but if you’ve ever seen Notre-Dame you should not have trouble understanding where the feeling of loss is coming from.

Not all appeals to emotion are fallacious. And since the emotional response can’t be denied—nor can the essential futility of the object itself—we’re left to explain the curious case of why the two largest luxury conglomerates in France have rushed to pledge €300 million towards the reconstruction of a building that is not only useless, but one that’s insured and owned by the government. Since the cathedral generates upwards of €100 million a year in tourism revenue, it’s conceivable they were first in line to foot the bill (plus, in theory the Archdiocese of Paris is responsible for its upkeep, and I’m guessing they wouldn’t be too hard pressed to find the cash if needed).

I would not expect critics of capitalism to push their research beyond the minimum effective dose of outrage needed to get a few clicks—but if they had, they might have bumped into a question: why should such amoral individuals part with their all-important cash?

To get a tax break on their donation, of course. Newsflash: they aren’t. But even if they did, why did they choose this particular initiative, and why was it so important to them that they basically got into a bidding war over it?

The answer is that there is an intrinsic connection between luxury and cathedrals—which lies in their functional futility—and luxury exemplars such as LVMH are keenly aware of it. Both were born out of the pursuit of excess.

Christopher Berry, in his book The Idea of Luxury makes two fundamental distinctions. First, luxury is divided in four basic categories; second, luxury can exist for the benefit of the individual or for society at large. The four categories are food, clothing, shelter and leisure. These are universal categories, in the sense that everyone needs these things—and you can’t recognise excess unless you compare it with necessity. A hut made of leaves is shelter; a home with plumbing and heating is comfortable housing; a penthouse overlooking Central Park is luxury housing; a cathedral is the epitome of luxury.

A keen reader might observe that a cathedral is not meant to be lived in, so it doesn’t qualify as shelter. That’s debatable. To reconcile these we have to exhume Veblen and his Theory of the Leisure Class, which at the respectable age of 120 years (it was published in 1899) is a surprisingly good description of our times—the concept of “conspicuous leisure” basically describes Instagram.

Although not in so many words, Veblen describes how the clergy constitutes the servitude of God—the help, basically. In his description of high society, if you had a high social standing you would have a staff large enough to have an internal hierarchy: you wouldn’t sully yourself with dealing with the people who mop your floor(s) and wash your dishes. You would have higher-level staff that deals with those people instead. So, since God enjoys as high a social standing as possible, his staff is quite layered. Just below the ambassadorial post of the Pope, bishops are butlers, ministering to the requirements of God by directing the clergy.

Cathedrals are a luxury and a symbol of aspiration in which we all partake. They have exercised this function for thousands of years, but as ever, the times are changing; as The Economist wrote following the fire, cathedrals are neglected in much of Europe.

Luxury brands, like religions, are building modern cathedrals.

JeanNoël Kapferer

This is the context in which luxury brands step in, building modern cathedrals in the shape of their flagship stores and rushing to save ancient one when necessity arose. Luxury brands sell the same product, often to the same customers—therefore it only makes sense that they donate money to preserve the very symbols of the industry they both represent. A successful writer or publishing house spending their money to save a ruined historical bookshop, for instance, would follow the same rationale. That’s why LVMH is rebuilding Notre-Dame.

One of the first pieces of management advice I remember reading is buried somewhere in The Effective Executive by Peter Drucker. He was talking about time management—but if you consider time as a potential source of value that can be used towards any number of worthy pursuits, it’s very similar to money. He says that:

You should delegate everything that anybody else can do.

Peter Drucker (probably)

The other side of that is that you should do what only you can do. In that sense, LVMH is the best possible donor, and manager, in the upcoming effort to rebuild Notre-Dame. And I guess, by the same token, that telling them how they should have spent their money instead is the best possible use of the intellect and platform of these latter-day critics.

To each his own.

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