In Tudor times, paupers who complained about their treatment would be whipped. In modern times, charities that campaign too vigorously on behalf of their beneficiaries are accused of "political activity," and risk their legal status and government funding being withdrawn.
The Alms Trade looks at how the concept of charity turned full circle under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's campaign to bring back Victorian values. Just as how, in the 19th century, the government broke its own laws, stealing from the poor to endow public schools for the rich, modern judges have ruled that private hospitals, because they do not explicitly exclude the poor, are entitled to charitable status.
Ian Williams identifies the legal concept of "bounty versus bargain" as representing the two conflicting approaches that underlie both the development of charity law and the welfare services, and the relationship between citizen and state. He also discusses how the archaic privileges of the state church were extended to all other religions and cults, with effect ranging from the comic to the disastrous, and how religious intolerance was converted by judges into the doctrine that charities may not engage in political activities.
A lively, well-written examination of a neglected area of public interest, this is a work that, in the present political climate, is of critical importance.
Liverpool born and educated, IAN WILLIAMS is a freelance writer specializing in activist journalism. Twice president and twice vice president of the United Nations Correspondents Association, he is a regular contributor to The Nation, China Economic Review, Middle East International, Salon, Open Democracy, AlterNet, and other publications. His books include Rum: A Social and Sociable History of the Real Spirit of 1776 and Deserter: Bush's War on Military Families, Veterans and His Past. He lives in New York.