This week we’re asking whether philanthropy is bad for democracy. Philanthropy funds scholarships for needy students. It builds libraries, hospitals, and museums. What's not to like? For starters, we shouldn't let those good things blind us to the corrosive harm that philanthropy does—especially to democracy.
What is it
In a liberal democracy, individuals should have the freedom to give money to charities of their choice. But there’s a difference between charitable giving from ordinary individuals and philanthropic giving from extremely wealthy individuals. Whose interests are served when the wealthy give? Should the state continue to encourage big philanthropy with massive tax breaks for the rich? Or should it focus more on taxing extreme wealth? Is big philanthropy destroying democracy? Josh and Ken take alms from Stanford political scientist Rob Reich, author of Just Giving: Why Philanthropy Is Failing Democracy and How It Can Do Better.
Josh and Ken begin the show by debating whether philanthropy is driven by compassion or ego. Ken believes that philanthropy is borne out of a desire to better the world and that it has a positive impact — funding research and building institutions, among other things. Josh, on the other hand, views philanthropy as a way for the elite to disguise the unscrupulous means by which they made their money. Rather than reward the wealthy for spending money on “monuments [for] their own vanity,” he argues, they should be taxed more. Citizens, instead, should decide how the money is spent.
The hosts are joined by guest Rob Reich, political scientist at Stanford University and author of Just Giving: Why Philanthropy is Failing Democracy and How It Can Do Better. The thinkers discuss the issue of private donor influence on public services and how it undermines democracy. As an example, Ken points to the private police force that patrols Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood and is hired and paid for by the University of Chicago. Rob criticizes this use of private funds to direct a public service of the most basic sort and argues that these funds should be directed to the government instead. Josh questions the efficacy of shifting private funds to the government, asking whether we can be certain that the government will spend the money more wisely. Rob’s response is that while there is no guarantee, democracy is not meant to be a mechanism for maximally-effective public spending anyway. Its purpose instead, he claims, is to allow citizens to have a voice and to make progress over time. This ability can be limited, however, if funds are constrained by private donors and the strings that they might attach to their contributions.
In the final segment, the hosts and Rob discuss the future of philanthropy. Rob points to one potential instigator of change: a tax bill passed by Trump that allows only the wealthiest individuals to itemize their charitable contributions. This bill, he believes, will make it more apparent that charitable giving is a mechanism for the rich created by policy and may incentivize people to fight against philanthropy as a deterrent to their interests. Finally, the hosts discuss the implications of the perpetuity of foundations. Rob makes the case that foundations should have a time-limited existence so that the “dead hand of the donor” cannot control future generations.
- Roving Philosophical Report (seek to 6:57) → Holly J. McDede takes a closer look at debates about whether to accept donations from the elite, which have gone on from the Gilded Age to present day. She delves into the case of the Sackler family, which owns the company that produces OxyContin, and its members’ attempts to use philanthropy to boost their social clout and be seen as patrons of the arts rather than creators of an opioid crisis.
- Sixty-Second Philosopher (seek to 45:57) → Ian Shoales examines philanthropy’s role over time in sustaining art and culture.