Political scientist Rob Reich accurately points out in his recent book Just Giving that “the practice of philanthropy raises distinctive questions of political philosophy that have not often been asked, much less well answered.”

In addition to Reich’s deeply thoughtful (if ultimately problematic) effort to bring political philosophy to bear on philanthropy, we also now have a concise, insightful contribution by Jacqueline Pfeffer Merrill, director of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Campus Free Expression Project and frequent contributor to Philanthropy Daily.

Entitled “From Hobbes to Hayek: Perspectives on Civil Society and Philanthropy,” her contribution to the Spring 2019 issue of The Independent Review (now available for free) lays out three possible approaches to philanthropy’s place within modern liberal democracy.

First, there is an argument for constraint, which holds that because citizens have established government as the legitimate, final authority to represent the commonweal, governments may properly constrain and even limit charity and philanthropy rather than allowing philanthropists unchecked freedom to establish rival loci of power. Second, there is an argument for protection of private philanthropy, which holds that because citizens have rights, especially private-property rights, they should be free to exercise them so long as they do not impinge on others’ rights. On this view, government should protect philanthropy and charity as activities bound up with individuals’ property rights. The third position, one of encouraging philanthropy, holds that because the health of pluralistic liberal democracies requires the flourishing of communities and associations, with special allowance for those that represent minority communities and unpopular opinions, governments should actively promote philanthropy as essential to sustaining such substate communities and minority groups for the sake of pluralist democracy.

As Merrill notes, philanthropy might seem to be “so obviously a good carried out by private citizens’ free acts that it is surprising to suppose governments might seek to constrain it.” But when it comes to, say, the Charles Koch Foundation’s support for programs that ensure a place for free market teachings on campuses, possible public objections to private philanthropy suddenly come into focus.  

[caption id="attachment_71254" align="alignnone" width="234"] Spring 2019 issue[/caption]

But the larger urge to constrain private philanthropy arises within modern political philosophy from theorists like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Immanuel Kant, and John Rawls. They share the view that it is possible rationally to arrive at an understanding of justice that demands public assent—and that brooks no competition from alternative views that might impede the fulfillment of the “general will.” For Rawls, as Merrill writes, it is self-evident that “people would choose principles of justice that make their society ‘fair,’” where fair is understood to mean that any “differences in outcomes should be arranged so that they are ‘to the greatest advantage of the least advantaged.’” This “difference principle” should not only become the standard for public policy, it should also be the standard for philanthropy, according to Rawls.

Merrill cites political scientist Chiara Cordelli, who “argues on Rawlsian grounds that the wealthy are duty bound to give charity to rectify the ways the distribution of wealth in our society deviates from the difference principle.” Indeed, Cordelli maintains, in her own words, the only aim “that should guide donors’ reasoning is a concern about the level of deprivation the worst-off are subject to as a consequence of an unjust system.” Cordelli goes so far as to argue that there’s even an obligation to support activism over charity—again in her own words, to give to “effective advocacy organizations, to the extent that this is the most effective way to bring about institutions that are able to secure and maintain egalitarian patterns of distribution over time.”

It should be noted that Reich himself seemed to flirt with this view in his earlier writing. Stanley Katz took note of this in his HistPhil review of Reich’s book, pointing out that when Katz first got to know him, “Rob was primarily concerned with the failure of philanthropists to abide by the imperative of democratic equality,” which he understood to be “the only justifiable goal of charitable giving.” Even though Reich co-authored a chapter in Just Giving with Cordelli, he has arrived at other purposes beyond equality that philanthropy may legitimately serve in democracy, including the cultivation of pluralism and social experimentation.

Linking views and sharing a link

Merrill goes on to link the second (“protective”) view of philanthropy to John Locke and his determination to secure private property within the liberal regime, and the third (“encouragement”) view to Alexis de Tocqueville’s argument that philanthropy’s support for a diverse and vigorous civil society is essential to a healthy democracy.

Locke and Tocqueville share something with each other that they don’t with Rousseau and Rawls: the former are actually linked to the American constitutional order. Locke’s understanding of private property exerted tremendous influence on our founders and the institutions they established. Tocqueville’s analysis of democracy in America aimed to understand how we alone had come to use the science of civic association to counteract the pernicious effects of democratic individualism.

By contrast, the Rawlsian notion of justice as fairness or equality makes little effort to find grounding in the American political order as it is. Its source instead is in the hopelessly abstract metaphysical reasonings of Rousseau and Kant, which were largely without influence on the leading founders.

This becomes important because American philanthropy today is increasingly guided by Rawls’ understanding of justice as equality. It is no longer considered enough to make grants to solve specific public problems. It’s essential instead that we become part of a larger movement, so we’re told, to address the unprecedented inequality afflicting our society.  

Ford Foundation president Darren Walker notes, “As the president of a social justice foundation with a mission to strengthen democracy, I have one presiding preoccupation: the staggering threat of inequality. Every day, my colleagues and I ask: What can we do to reduce inequality in all of its forms?” Only in this way, as the title of Walker’s recent book has it, can we move “from generosity to justice.” No wonder that, following Cordelli’s advice, more and more philanthropy is devoted to political activism, aimed at bringing about “institutions that are able to secure and maintain egalitarian patterns of distribution over time.”

The result of all this is that the most-detached and -unaccountable institutions in the American polity today are pursuing an understanding of justice that is equally detached, abstract, and without any grounding in American founding principles.

Ironically, the Rawlsian understanding makes philanthropy seem more important because of its role in promoting a larger vision of social justice. But it achieves this only by agreeing to the constrained Rawlsian notion that philanthropy has no role apart from its promotion of a particular view of justice, whose fulfillment is somewhere (if anywhere) in the distant future. It is no accident that social-justice philanthropy today is quickly becoming indistinguishable from social-justice politics, with success measured not in concrete charitable accomplishments, but rather in electoral and legislative contributions to an ideological movement.

The Lockean and Tocquevillian views of philanthropy, by contrast, subordinate philanthropy to the ends of private property and civil society. While that might seem like a humbler role, philanthropy is nonetheless anchored in, and protected and promoted by, the existing American political system within which it has a secure niche.

A better grounding in the founding

Conservative philanthropy has experienced some success at shaping American public policy in spite of the fact that it’s vastly outgunned by progressive philanthropy. That’s precisely because it is grounded in private property and civil society; it works with the grain of the American political order as shaped by John Locke and Alexis de Tocqueville. Progressive philanthropy will no doubt experience some success as well, given its massive resources. But it will be frustrated in its ultimate aim to achieve a fully just and equal society, because it is working against the grain of our order, in pursuit of an abstract, utopian goal. 

Insofar as we do indeed require, as Reich suggests, an understanding of philanthropy from the perspective of political philosophy, it would be wiser to approach that task from within the traditions of our own political order. Merrill’s essay gets us off to an excellent start, reminding us of the teachings that have informed and shaped our own concrete political experiences—as well as alerting us to the problems of a philanthropic approach that seems most at home in an Ivy League philosophy department.