Why do rich people donate to museums or charity?

It’s not just philanthropic. Sometimes it’s just selfish self-interest. From John Brook’s “12 Business Adventures of Wall Street”:

But if the [Tax] Code is anti-intellectual, it is probably so only inadvertently—and is certainly so only inconsistently. By granting tax-exempt status to charitable foundations, it facilitates the award of millions of dollars a year—most of which would otherwise go into the government’s coffers—to scholars for travel and living expenses while they carry out research projects of all kinds. And by making special provisions in respect to gifts of property that has appreciated in value, it has—whether advertently or inadvertently—tended not only to force up the prices that painters and sculptors receive for their work but to channel thousands of works out of private collections and into public museums. The mechanics of this process are by now so well known that they need be merely outlined: a collector who donates a work of art to a museum may deduct on his income-tax return the fair value of the work at the time of the donation, and need pay no capital-gains tax on any increase in its value since the time he bought it. If the increase in value has been great and the collector’s tax bracket is very high, he may actually come out ahead on the deal. Besides burying some museums under such an avalanche of bounty that their staffs are kept busy digging themselves out, these provisions have tended to bring back into existence that lovable old figure from the pre-tax past, the rich dilettante. In recent years, some high-bracket people have fallen into the habit of making serial collections—Post-Impressionists for a few years, perhaps, followed by Chinese jade, and then by modern American painting. At the end of each period, the collector gives away his entire collection, and when the taxes he would otherwise have paid are calculated, the adventure is found to have cost him practically nothing.

The low cost of high-income people’s charitable contributions, whether in the form of works of art or simply in the form of money and other property, is one of the oddest fruits of the Code. Of approximately five billion dollars claimed annually as deductible contributions on personal income-tax returns, by far the greater part is in the form of assets of one sort or another that have appreciated in value, and comes from persons with very high incomes. The reasons can be made clear by a simple example: A man with a top bracket of 20 per cent who gives away $1,000 in cash incurs a net cost of $800. A man with a top bracket of 60 per cent who gives away the same sum in cash incurs a net cost of $400. If, instead, this same high-bracket man gives $1,000 in the form of stock that he originally bought for $200, he incurs a net cost of only $200. It is the Code’s enthusiastic encouragement of large-scale charity that has led to most of the cases of million-dollar-a-year men who pay no tax at all; under one of its most peculiar provisions, anyone whose income tax and contributions combined have amounted to nine-tenths or more of his taxable income for eight out of the ten preceding years is entitled by way of reward to disregard in the current year the usual restrictions on the amount of deductible contributions, and can escape the tax entirely.

Thus the Code’s provisions often enable mere fiscal manipulation to masquerade as charity, substantiating a frequent charge that the Code is morally muddleheaded, or worse. The provisions also give rise to muddleheadedness in others. The appeal made by large fund-raising drives in recent years, for example, has been uneasily divided between a call to good works and an explanation of the tax advantages to the donor. An instructive example is a commendably thorough booklet entitled “Greater Tax Savings … A Constructive Approach,” which was used by Princeton in a large capital-funds drive. (Similar, not to say nearly identical, booklets have been used by Harvard, Yale, and many other institutions.) “The responsibilities of leadership are great, particularly in an age when statesmen, scientists, and economists must make decisions which will almost certainly affect mankind for generations to come,” the pamphlet’s foreword starts out, loftily, and goes on to explain, “The chief purpose of this booklet is to urge all prospective donors to give more serious thought to the manner in which they make their gifts.… There are many different ways in which substantial gifts can be made at comparatively low cost to the donor. It is important that prospective donors acquaint themselves with these opportunities.” The opportunities expounded in the subsequent pages include ways of saving on taxes through gifts of appreciated securities, industrial property, leases, royalties, jewelry, antiques, stock options, residences, life insurance, and inventory items, and through the use of trusts (“The trust approach has great versatility”). At one point, the suggestion is put forward that, instead of actually giving anything away, the owner of appreciated securities may wish to sell them to Princeton, for cash, at the price he originally paid for them; this might appear to the simple-minded to be a commercial transaction, but the booklet points out, accurately, that in the eyes of the Code the difference between the securities’ current market value and the lower price at which they are sold to Princeton represents pure charity, and is fully deductible as such. “While we have laid heavy emphasis on the importance of careful tax planning,” the final paragraph goes, “we hope no inference will be drawn that the thought and spirit of giving should in any way be subordinated to tax considerations.” Indeed it should not, nor need it be; with the heavy substance of giving so deftly minimized, or actually removed, its spirit can surely fly unrestrained.

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