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Sunday’s New York Times included a story by Sonia Faleiro on a family of three Indian orphans. Under the title “For India’s Children, Philanthropy Isn’t Enough,” Faleiro described the circumstances that led the children’s aunt to refuse an offer from a philanthropist to send the children to school, thus consigning them to a life of illiteracy and poverty.

As Faleiro describes, it’s not that the aunt is simply mean. The aunt’s motivations are complex; among other factors, she is dependent on her eldest nephew’s income to support her household. It’s a very sad tale about the difficulties in bridging the gap between people’s present circumstances and the prospect of a much brighter future.

If philanthropy’s not enough, what’s the solution? Faleiro concludes that only government action can address the situation of these orphans and others like them. And, in that, I think that Faleiro is quite correct. However, she doesn’t sufficiently make clear in her story that there are two, quite distinct reasons why government is necessary to address the sorry situation she describes.

The seventeenth-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes commented on both reasons why government may be necessary. It might seem surprising that a seventeenth-century English philosopher’s writings are germane to twenty-first-century India, but Hobbes was writing about the politics of situations of extreme personal insecurity -- as we find in the story of these three orphans.

What are the two reasons Hobbes suggests that government is a necessary supplement to philanthropy?

First, philanthropy isn’t enough in circumstances where poverty is so widespread that it’s impossible to expect private organizations to provide for urgent needs. Hobbes wrote:

And whereas many men, by accident inevitable, become unable to maintain themselves by their labor, they ought not to be left to the charity of private persons, but to be provided for, as far forth as the necessities of nature require, by the laws of the Commonwealth. For as it is uncharitableness in any man to neglect the impotent; so it is in the sovereign of a Commonwealth, to expose them to the hazard of such uncertain charity.

In India, widespread poverty requires government action; in the United States, while we may disagree about its appropriate scope, most accept the need for a government-provided safety net.

But, second -- and this is the more subtle point -- philanthropy alone isn’t enough because government provides the necessary grounds for philanthropic enterprises. As Hobbes argued, we resign the absolute liberty we would enjoy in the state of nature to enter civil society because it’s a very good deal for us. In the state of nature with no government, not only would life be “poor, nasty, brutish, and short” but there would be

no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society.

That is, government makes possible the kind of society in which philanthropy is possible: society with activities that generate enough goods to lift men beyond scrounging for bare necessities and so able to give generously, and where the rule of law allows sufficient security to carry out philanthropic plans.

Faleiro’s piece describes widespread corruption in India that goes unchecked; the institutions of civil society are so lacking that people must focus on their immediate survival. They are unable to cultivate the sense of abundance that allows philanthropy to take root. In the case Faleiro describes, philanthropy fails because the children’s aunt is too insecure in her circumstances, which are profoundly shaped by political corruption, to be able to forgo the income she earns from her nephew and so she refuses a philanthropic offer to educate the children.

Indeed, it’s likely that the more that government provides for the secure rule of law, the more a society is able to generate the wealth as well as the philanthropic spirit that can, to some degree, provide a safety net for the poor.

So, yes, philanthropy’s not enough. But while government makes possible philanthropy, and there are some things governments do better than philanthropists, government shouldn’t try to usurp the important place philanthropy has in a healthy civic society.


1 thought on “When is philanthropy not enough?”

  1. Drew Anderson says:

    The NY Times article is a sad story and the commenary above is a helpful corrective analysis of monumental problems in India. I would just add that the role of faith and the actions on a one on one basis by devout, hard working individuals have been important and should be considered. Many know of Mother Teresa who did not give up. A huge crisis can be taken on with many partners and on many levels.

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