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Our social contract roots forever privilege the individual, on the one hand, and the state, on the other, which is why institutions in between, like foundations, seem to have a somewhat tenuous legal and constitutional status…

The mention of the term “social contract” in the panel description -- unhappily for you all -- sent me rooting through some musty old tomes from my graduate courses in political theory, which I took at Northern Illinois University, the Harvard of DeKalb County, just 50 miles west of this hotel.

We tend to throw around notions like “social contract” rather glibly, and add or subtract provisions as it suits our immediate political purposes.

But in fact, “social contract” means something very concrete and specific in the Western political tradition.

Furthermore, what it means has a direct, if ironic, bearing on this annual gathering of great and powerful independent foundations.

For the primary social contract theorists, namely Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, would have insisted that social contract doctrine was explicitly designed to subordinate or destroy such independent centers of power.

After all, those institutions tended to challenge and weaken the political sovereign, precipitating the sorts of bloody civil disorders so common in the era during which the idea of social contract originated.

The social contract articulates an unmediated bond directly between the authority of the political state and the rights of the people.

But this could be accomplished only by circumventing or disempowering all potentially disruptive intermediate associations -- independent cities, guilds, monastic orders, and ecclesiastical charities. Think Henry VIII’s dispossession of the English Catholic Church.

As Hobbes put it, such pernicious independent corporations formed “many lesser Commonwealths in the bowels of a greater, like worms in the entrails of a natural man.”

Insofar as philanthropy is in need of a dose of humility, there’s an analogy that ought to do the trick.

Fortunately for America, though, we took our understanding of social contract from another early theorist, namely, John Locke.

Unlike Hobbes and Rousseau, Locke understood the importance of free and private institutions within the commonwealth. Private property was the primary expression and guardian of such institutions.

That potentially carves out a more generous sphere of action for foundations as accumulations of property.

But our social contract roots forever privilege the individual, on the one hand, and the state, on the other, which is why institutions in between, like foundations, seem to have a somewhat tenuous legal and constitutional status.

Our Constitution and Bill of Rights are all about government powers and individual rights, leaving the fate of charities and foundations to transient legislative majorities and judicial rulings.

As long as foundations confine themselves to indisputably charitable enterprises -- supporting eminently worthy projects like feeding the hungry and housing the homeless -- their fragile status is not so apparent.

But today, such modest aspirations are considered to be beneath contempt.

Philanthropy now is big, bold, and above all, strategic. It doesn’t put band-aids on problems, it solves them once and for all.

And that demands massive incursions into the political realm, because so many of our problems seem to be complex, deep-rooted, and systemic, requiring that philanthropy get its eager hands on the gears of public policy.

We’re no longer even shocked when ideologically inclined donors like George Soros or the Koch brothers openly announce their intentions to reshape the American regime through their philanthropy as well as their campaign contributions.

Indeed, some donors have become impatient with the timid dance of indirect advocacy, and have begun to announce that their gifts will flow only if the voters bend to their will.

Grants for education reform in New Jersey, we learned recently, would be forthcoming from one wealthy donor only if the incumbent governor is reelected.

The fact that there hasn’t been any great public outcry about this has lulled our sector’s leaders into a sense that there are no longer any limits.

That’s a potentially risky and dangerous presumption. Whenever foundations in the past have forgotten their tenuous status in the American political order, the political sovereign was quick to remind them of it.

The Walsh Commission early in the 20th century, the Cox and Reese Congressional investigations of the 50s, and Wright Patman’s probes in the 60s were all triggered by foundations seemingly wandering too far into overtly political territory.

And today there is mounting concern among progressives and populist conservatives alike about crony capitalism, and the excessive influence of the wealthy on public policy.

The only thing that has so far sheltered foundations from this backlash against wealth may be the still regnant, seemingly naïve popular view that foundations are about charity, not advocacy.

Yet our own sector leaders are determined to debunk that view, without understanding its baleful consequences. We can almost hear the Hobbesian muttering growing louder: “worms, I say -- worms in the bowels of the commonwealth.”

As a regime founded on the notion of the social contract, our politics is ultimately grounded in a direct relationship between the state and the people – the consent of the governed.

It is jealous of and suspicious about any institution that seeks to interject itself into that relationship.

We are currently, insousciantly testing the limits of that jealousy and suspicion. Judging by the history of American philanthropy, we may come to regret this.

Ed. note: This essay is taken from remarks made at “Is the Government Social Contract Fraying in Real Time?” during the Council on Foundations Annual Meeting, April 9, 2013.

1 thought on “Foundations and the social contract”

  1. Scott Walter says:

    Another thought-provoking speech from one of the best in the field — and don’t take my word for it.

    Rob Meiksins declares at Nonprofit Quarterly that this is “some of the most interesting reading about the role of foundations and philanthropy in our society that this writer has seen in a very long time.”


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