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Does philanthropy by a wealthy elite subvert democracy and electoral politics? And could that actually be a good thing?
Difficult questions about the role of philanthropy in a democracy have once more raised their heads in the last few weeks. Suspicions that Mark Zuckerberg is gearing up for a presidential bid in 2020, following news of his recent lecture tour in a handful of key battleground US states, have led to people revisting questions about all aspects of his life and business, including his philanthropic vehicle, the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative.
Firstly we should spell out precisely why one might think that philanthropy is undemocratic. Let’s assume that we are talking about individual rather than institutional philanthropy here: i.e. the decisions about where and how to give are made by a living donor or family of donors. Those decisions are thus essentially voluntary ones, based on some mixture of factors such as emotion, personal connection, circumstance at the time, ideological beliefs or even (whisper it quietly) evidence about where the most pressing needs are and how to address them. No-one has elected these donors, or otherwise given them a mandate to make these decisions, so what they are doing is clearly undemocratic.
The immediate and obvious response to this is “so what?” My choice about what drink to buy for myself in a bar is surely not democratic either, and nobody has a right to criticize that, do they? Likewise, some argue, what wealthy individuals do with their own money is their own business and no-one else’s. But there are a number of objections to this argument, which I will outline and attempt to place within my barroom metaphor.
The first objection is that the sheer scale of the resources available to many wealthy individuals (both financial and in terms of influence and power), mean that they exhibit what philanthropy scholar Paul Schervish has termed “hyper-agency”, i.e. “an array of dispositions and capacities that enable individuals to relatively single-handedly produce the social outcomes they desire.”
The second objection is that, regardless of the practical effects of my donations, I have a responsibility to ensure that they meet the needs of society, and that as such I don’t just get to choose to give to whatever I want. There are a number of ways one can go with this argument. One is to base it in political theory, and to argue that the legitimate role of philanthropy within society is as a means of redistribution of wealth and reparative justice, and that as such all philanthropists have a duty to ensure that their actions are meeting these criteria. This is a position taken by Chiara Cordelli in her paper “Reparative Justice and the Moral Limits of Discretionary Philanthropy” (which you can find in Reich, Cordelli & Bernholz (eds) Philanthropy in Democratic Societies- a volume I have heaped praise on before on this blog. There’s also a blog version here). I’m not sure I agree with her, but I think being forced to work out exactly why is an important exercise.
Another, more common, version of this argument comes from ethics and moral philosophy, and centres on the notion of a “social contract” which obliges those who have created wealth to give back in order to support the society which made that wealth creation possible. One might believe that any form of philanthropy is sufficient to discharge this obligation as long as it delivers a public good, but usually people tend to believe that some forms of philanthropy are more desirable than others (poverty relief versus support for an opera house, for instance), so this often raises the questions of what constitutes a public good and what should count as a charitable purpose (which we definitely don’t have the space to get into here).