Sheldon Adelson caricature by DonkeyHotey

This is one of those things with all the potential to cause outrage – Sheldon Adelson is offering to pay some part at least of the cost of the new US embassy in Jerusalem. One part of the controversy will just be the usual screams of zionists oppressing Palestinians which accompany absolutely anything to do with Israel. A slightly more believable set of objections will come from those who insist that we just don’t do this sort of thing. That is, allow private citizens to voluntarily and specifically cover the costs of their desired part of government.

We do, of course, allow private citizens to cover the costs of government. There’s no one here but us chickens to cover those costs and the imposts are called taxes. There’re even those (Senator Dodd? Lookin’ at you here) who insist that the system is voluntary but the IRS tends not to agree with that. But what we don’t normally do is allow individuals to pay for, of their own volition, specific items of their choice that government is or should be doing. Tax is a general pot we pay into, not a menu of choices.

This isn’t the right way to do it though:

The Trump administration is considering an offer from Republican mega-donor Sheldon Adelson to pay for at least part of a new U.S. embassy in Jerusalem, four U.S. officials told The Associated Press.

Or rather, that is the right way to do it, the usual ban on such being the wrong way:

The United States will move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in May to coincide with Israel’s 70th Independence Day, a U.S. official told Haaretz on Friday.

U.S. President Donald Trump spoke about the decision during his appearance before the annual CPAC conference in Washington. “It was the right thing to do,” Trump said.

“I was hit by more countries and more pressure and more people calling, begging me not to do it. Don’t do it. And I said – ‘we have to do it, it’s the right thing to do.'”

We’ve no strong view either or any way on the move of the embassy to Jerusalem – other than that it annoys the sort of people we like to see annoyed. But on the payment issue:

Lawyers at the State Department are looking into the legality of accepting private donations to cover some or all of the embassy costs, said the officials, who weren’t authorized to discuss the issue publicly and demanded anonymity. The discussions are occurring as the administration plans a ribbon-cutting for a scaled-down, temporary embassy that will open in May — more than a year ahead of schedule.

In one possible scenario, the administration would solicit contributions not only from Adelson but potentially from other donors in the evangelical Christian and American Jewish communities, too. One official said Adelson, a Las Vegas casino magnate and staunch supporter of Israel, had offered to pay the difference between the total cost — expected to run into the hundreds of millions of dollars — and what the administration is able to raise.

Under any circumstance, letting private citizens cover the costs of an official government building would mark a significant departure from historical U.S. practice.

Well, yes and no. It has long been possible to pay extra taxes, there’s the Gifts to the United States account which has been around since the 1850s. Gets a few million a year, just under $4 million last time I went and asked them. Voluntary extra taxation thus has a long pedigree. So, why not? Why not extend that to people being allowed to offer extra taxes – that’s what offering to pay the expenses of government is – and also allocate those extra, voluntary, payments to what they would like to fund.

There is, still, that problem of who is doing the offering and for what reason. Adelson isn’t exactly liked on the American left. A major donor to Republican causes for example. And perhaps worse, an American Jew who is a Republican, those being rare beasts. But then we should take the point made, pecunia non olet.

This has a resonance to do with Jerusalem too. The emperor Vespasian started taxing the public toilets. His son, Titus, thought this was a very bad idea. Running the empire on the shithouses? Vespasian pointed out that money has no smell – pecunia non olet. Doesn’t matter where the cash comes from that is, feel the purpose to which it is put. The connection being that Titus was the military leader of the Roman ransack of Jerusalem after the rebellion, the destruction of the Temple and all.

Whatever anyone thinks of Sheldon Adelson or the way he made his money the US government has decided to move the embassy to Jerusalem. That’s going to mean some expense. If Adelson offers to pay some of this and therefore the rest of us taxpayers don’t have to then good luck to that ship and all who sail in it. Why wouldn’t we react that way?