In a liberal democracy, individuals should have the freedom to give money to charities of their choice.
This week we’re asking whether philanthropy is bad for democracy—which is more than a little ironic. Philanthropy pays both of our salaries. It funds scholarships for needy students. It builds libraries, hospitals, and museums. So what’s not (for us) to like?
For starters, we shouldn't let those good things blind us to the corrosive harm that philanthropy does—especially to democracy. Ask yourself why we need to bribe rich people into giving their money away, using tax breaks—and I mean huge tax breaks. All that does is reduce the overall funds government has to spend on all the things we need.
So would we rather rich people hoard their money? Of course not. What we should do instead is tax them more—a lot more! That way, instead of rewarding them for wasting money on monuments to their own vanity, “We the People” would get to decide, democratically, how to spend it on things that matter to all of us.
Does this make it sound like most philanthropists are driven by ego rather than selfless compassion, or maybe a lust for power, or even a desire for absolution? Well, think of who big philanthropists really are. Back in the Gilded Age, we had Rockefeller and Carnegie. Nowadays, you’ve got the likes of Sheldon Adelson and the Koch Brothers. Do we really trust the motives of people like them?
Obviously there have been some, shall we say, unsavory characters among the pantheon of great philanthropists. But there’s also the likes of George Soros or Bill Gates, whose politics may be more progressive. That said, it’s not really their politics that’s the issue. The point is that these people didn’t make their billions by being selflessly compassionate. They made them either by rigging the system or by being ruthless robber barons.
But should it matter how they made their money? Shouldn't all that matters be what they’re doing with it now they’ve got it, now that they’ve switched to philanthropic mode? Why get all Bernie Sanders on them and assume their wealth is ill-gotten? And even if it were, shouldn’t we be pleased when some of it is given back to society?
Some might even say we should to be grateful to these people—like they're donating out of the goodness of their heart. But haven't you ever noticed how they seem to need to plaster their names all over whatever they build? Someone else, of course, might not begrudge a wealthy donor who gives, say, 30 million bucks to build a cancer center, a little name recognition. What’s so bad about giving credit where credit is due?
Well if that amounts to taking tainted money, and ignoring who they are and where it came from, and then bowing and scraping and saying, “Thank you, oh so much, O saintly one, for building us a monument in your own honor,” it does start to seem like the moral equivalent of money laundering—a way for the Rockefellers of the world to disguise the unscrupulous way they came by their money. And also a way for them to whitewash their reputations.
But surely some philanthropists are just good, caring people, who made their money honestly, and they’re interested in using their wealth to change the world and make it a better place. If that's the case, then why do we need to bribe them with tax breaks? At the very least our tax policies could use some change. But that still leaves us with the question of how many philanthropists are genuine saints and how many are just sinners in disguise.