Turgot on Problems and Solutions Regarding “Foundations” Essay

Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot was a perfect example of the “enlightened Administrator” who wished to reform the government, not overthrow it, and was even employed by King Louis XIV as “Controller General”. His ideas in the article, On Foundations, while radical, and critical of the Old Regime, mainly focus on the ideas of local government, taxation, humanism, and citizenship. In the article, Turgot criticizes the Old Regime practice of employing “foundations” or corporate charities, as a main source of financial aid to the community and proposes alternatives to the practice that focus on individual responsibility and volunteerism.

According to Turgot, foundations are private charities that are often created and continued for the wrong reasons. He believes that most of the time, it is a founder’s (whether it be a man, church, or corporation) vanity that leads to creating a foundation, rather that truly caring about what society needs or would benefit the most from. Turgot states that founders are drawn to the idea of the prestige of creating a new charity or are interested in the “glamour” of supporting a new cause or project.

Similarly, he believes that even if the main reason for creating the foundation was not based upon the originator’s vanity, the charities are attached to certain ideal, such as Christianity, and are partly interested in peddling and promoting the beliefs or wishes of the benefactor as part of the trade for financial support. This creates a potential dilemma for the recipient, who is reliant on the charity, to acquiesce to certain rules or beliefs that the founder promotes. In Turgot’s opinion, whatever the foundation, it is originally created to fulfill a particular “purpose that the founder had in view. Another problem with the practice of foundations, says Turgot, is that they are often detrimental to society.

Because foundations are basically “free subsistence” that is available to anyone, with poverty being the only required factor to qualify for aid, Turgot believes that it fosters laziness and even crime. He thinks that many would choose to live the life of a beggar if they could receive free aid, and that able-bodied men would become burdens instead of productive members of society. He uses Spain and Italy as examples of places that have the most charity and are still the most miserable in terms of productivity and poverty.

Basically Turgot believes that if given the choice between unending support in exchange for being poor, many would choose to receive the free money rather that work for any. Turgot also thinks that foundations are detrimental to society in that they take funds that could otherwise be used for the general public good, instead of for the particular goal of the founder. However, because the foundation is mainly concerned with it’s own cause, and is often not in tune with the changing needs of the general public, the money going to them, in Turgot’s opinion, is being wasted.

Lastly, Turgot believes that foundations are inherently inefficient. They do address the actual cause of a problem, and only treat a symptom, which only mollifies the smaller issues and never leads to any lasting change broadly. The author suggests that the values fostered by the foundations are irrelevant to the main problems of most of society. Because they are based upon traditional thought (i. e. that society doesn’t change), they fail to adapt to the most current needs of society and therefor, render themselves useless in aiding the most general and widespread requirements.

Turgot also explains that foundations can never continue to be relevant or useful because there is no way of keeping the original intent exciting or contemporary to the facilitators after so many years, or after the responsibility for the foundation has changed hands. Also, though these corporations are almost always rendered useless to society, instead of revamping or replacing old, outdated institutions, new ones are put in (partly because creating a new one feeds into the founder’s aforementioned vanity) new foundations are created with the same purpose, and are doomed to follow the pattern of the old ones.

This practice of “doubling and tripling” as Turgot calls it, leads to even more money being drawn away from the general fund. Because the system of foundations is so flawed, Turgot has some suggestions as to how to actually benefit society. First, he recommends that no more foundations be made, since they are bound to repeat the mistakes of the old ones. Second, he proposes that the foundations still in existence be put out of commission, and have their funds expropriated or distributed to other, more general projects that would benefit more current, general issues.

Third, he urges citizens to take an active role in helping their own society. Turgot recommends that charity be voluntary, and individual when need is not too great, and based upon a tax system when a need is urgent or more universal. According to Turgot, if citizens are the basis of donations, when the need in a particular area is addressed and solved, the money will be moved elsewhere because citizens are all a part of the society and are therefor inherently sensitive to the current needs of the general public.

By doing away with foundations, and making society responsible for helping itself, Turgot hoped to create “citizens” out of “subjects” and make people active participants in their own government. Because he believed that society has an obligation to the poor, he urged citizens to be aware of the problems that were most current and relevant to the time. Because foundations could not imagine social change or reconstructions since their ideas were based upon the theories related to the “Great Chain of Being,” Turgot cited private commerce and direct civic action as a way to aid society’s needy.

He considered the fact that society changes over time, and thus the needs change, and foundations were not only causing delay in progress but were an actual hindrance to social advancement. Though his ideas of demolishing foundations, redistributing their funds, and creating a sense of civic understanding in citizens may have seemed radical to the Old Regime, they were truly in the spirit of the Enlightenment, and displayed Turgot’s faith in the possibility of an intelligent, empathetic, progressive society of active, political citizens.

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