The Philanthropy Trap

Sunday, February 24, 2019
First Aired: 
Sunday, June 19, 2016

What Is It

Many of us generally admire people who donate large sums of money to charity. Yet people donate for all sorts of reasons – some selfless, some not so much. Should we consider philanthropy as mere ego expression for the wealthy, or is it genuinely altruistic behavior? If philanthropists are so concerned with having an impact on society, how should we think about "measuring" this impact? Are there better ways than philanthropy to achieve positive social change? John and Ken donate their time to Bruce Sievers from the Haas Center for Public Service at Stanford University.

Listening Notes

Is philanthropy just the rich undemocratically imposing their values on the rest of society? Is the rise of philanthropy just a negative side effect of not having high enough taxes? Why do we, the public, subsidize philanthropy? John and Ken go back and forth on whether philanthropists should be praised or blamed. John suggests that we may want to roll back some of the subsidies and praise given to philanthropists. Ken in turn pushes John to appreciate that interventions in civil society (e.g. philanthropy) may be more efficient that government.

Scholar and philanthropy-expert Bruce Sievers joins the show. Sievers makes the pointed claim that, even in the ideal world, we would still need philanthropy. Sievers points to Michael Walzer’s argument that, even in a good socialist society, there would be philanthropy. John presses Sievers on why we subsidize the activity of philanthropists with the modest tax breaks that we give them. Ken registers a knee-jerk reaction against the idea of turning an altruistic impulse of charitable giving into a self-interested, subsidized activity.

Ken guides the conversation towards the undemocratic nature of philanthropy – whether it’s the rich imposing their values on the rest. Markets hold businesses accountable, and the public holds politicians accountable. Who holds philanthropists accountable? Sievers thinks that there’s a new type of accountability held to philanthropists that’s not majoritarian, instead allowing for pluralism. He refers to stats to defend this pluralism point; there’s a huge diversity of persons donating.

This discussion of pluralism leads to a discussion of civil society and its longer term focus allowing each to articulate their conception of the good. John then wonders why political speech isn’t tax deductible, but donations to all sorts of nonprofits is. A caller asks why philanthropists are being subsidized to simply fulfill their obligation to society. Ken wonders how much of charitable giving is motivated by self-interest? Is philanthropy just ego-stroking for the rich?

  • Roving Philosophical Report (seek to 6:28): Shuka Kalantari documents the case of an “indie-philanthropist” who diversifies her portfolio to an enormous extent. Moreover, she recognizes a need to undermine the systems of our day and sees her philanthropy as supporting this cause.
  • Sixty Second Philosopher (seek to 45:43): Ian Shoales begins riffing off the history of the word ‘philanthropy,’ which translates from Greek to “the love of humanity.” He discusses the secularization of philanthropy over centuries. He points out the shady origins the wealth of the biggest philanthropists in history.


Comments (3)

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Friday, February 22, 2019 -- 11:25 AM

I commented on this subject

I commented on this subject back in 2016. Anyone still thinking about this matter can see those remarks, if desired. I remain somewhat amused by the 'trap', if that is what it may be called. Being unfamiliar with the rules attached to this practice, I have to ask: do such donations and bequests of moneys entail tax write-offs for magnanimously wealthy contributors? If so, the degree of generosity seems, uh, somewhat muted, don't you think? I mean, tax write-off is a favored ploy of many who would dodge the taxman's scythe, so what else is new, hmmmm? Just asking, you see...

mirugai's picture


Sunday, February 24, 2019 -- 12:54 PM

Charitable Contributions

Charitable Contributions

Walking with a friend the other day, we came upon graffiti on a wall: “Tax the Rich.” My friend said “amen.” I said “It’s not about how much to tax, it’s about what the taxes are going to be used for.” (Of course in a real democracy the people would probably have the right not just to vote on the tax rate, but to vote on government spending too. Congress seems paralyzed to handle these matters anyway.)
Let’s say I’m upper middle class in the income department. I already pay about 70% of my income to taxes (federal and state income, social security, sales, property, excise, tolls, licenses and permits, utility taxes, etc.). That’s a lot of taxes I already pay. We are the (second?) richest country in the world; could the amount of money wasted on warfare and imperialism and hegemony, and graft, and duplicating federal and state governmental organizations, pay for what we really need such as universal health care, free education and daycare, and guaranteed national income ($75K tax free), and infrastructure upgrade? (There should also be a cap on individual earnings of $1M per year (that is way enough!), with the obligation to pass on the individual earnings over that down the path to each person in line in the company or family, always max $1M.)
Charitable contributions? The government in theory gives a deduction for contributions for services and support that it should ideally provide. But the elaborate system set up to allow an organization to authorize the deductibility promotes huge salaries and perks for the organizers, and all kinds of bullshit that actually keeps significant funds from reaching the intended goals. US taxpayers should get a tax deduction for charitable giving to individuals in need that are not IRS designated charities. Do you know that the IRS trusts us to pay business expenses of $25 or less without the necessity for a receipt? Why not the same for charitable giving to people in need who are not 501c3’s? Or why not trust us for giving of $100 or less? Or $1000? I meet people, working people, all the time who are so broke that they can’t take care of basics. I help them out; but even though I am doing something I think any decent government would do for them, I cannot claim a tax deduction for my contribution. The system is set up to benefit the “charitable” organization, not the purported recipients of the donations. Try to find a public record of the salaries and perks of a charitable institution.
The government is giving tax deductions to taxpayers who want to “save mountain lions” (now so “saved” that they can eat babies in urban shopping malls?), but I can’t get a tax deduction for helping my friend who can’t afford a necessary surgery.