Yesterday, the Ford Foundation’s President Darren Walker posted a thoughtful essay on the history of philanthropy and inequality, along with an analysis of how to tackle global inequities today. Since the piece revisits many of the topics that HistPhil contributors discussed during the inequality forum, we wanted to bring the essay to readers’ attention. He also answers quite directly the question posed by one of these contributors and HistPhil co-editor Benjamin Soskis: Does Ford’s Announcement Signal a New Gospel of Wealth?
In “Toward a new Gospel of Wealth,” Darren Walker begins with a discussion of Andrew Carnegie’s “Gospel of Wealth” (1889). He argues that, while it is still possible to find inspiration in this late-nineteenth-century text, perhaps it is time to move beyond it and reimagine a new gospel of giving; a guiding creed for philanthropists which could be equally inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s own thoughts on philanthropy and economic injustice. Walker writes: “It is incumbent upon each of us to dig deeper and relish the dirt beneath our fingernails; what for Carnegie was bedrock, to us has become topsoil.”
With this blended creed in mind, Walker outlines how the philanthropic sector should view its role in society. He calls on his own organization and colleagues in the field to open themselves up to more critical discussions of structural inequalities; to acknowledge and shed themselves of “paternalistic instincts”; and, to question the root causes of social inequities, “even, and especially, when it means that we ourselves will be implicated.”
He then explains how this imagined role for modern philanthropy in society fits in with philanthropy’s obligations to capitalism. Walker writes that philanthropy, as a product of a market system, has an obligation to strengthen and improve it. And invoking Adam Smith to buttress his own point, he argues that the best way to strengthen and improve this system is to “help foster a stronger safety net and a level playing field.”
He concludes the piece with this call for action: “Let us bridge the philosophies of Smith, and Carnegie, and King, and break the scourge of inequality. For when we do, to paraphrase another of Dr. King’s most powerful insights, we at last will bend the demand curve toward justice.”
I found the piece quite moving. If anything, I wish Walker would have focused as much on the history of the American people’s mentality as he did on the history of these three men’s economic thoughts. Before dismissing the lessons to be learned from Carnegie’s lifetime and moving on to a blended Carnegie-King creed, for example, Walker could have noted that there is much that today’s citizens (and the philanthropies supporting them) could learn from late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Americans. Arguably more than today’s Americans, these earlier Americans were particularly aware of structural economic inequalities and empowered to champion against them. They are a worthy case study for any philanthropic organization such as Ford trying to support ordinary citizens’ efforts to do the same.
-Maribel Morey, co-editor of HistPhil