Philanthropy and Inequality

Gunnar Myrdal in the Latest Issue of HUMANITY

Editors’ Note: HistPhil co-editor Maribel Morey discusses the Gunnar Myrdal symposium in the latest issue of Humanity, and explains its relevance for scholars and practitioners of philanthropy.

Americans generally remember Gunnar Myrdal (1898-1987) as the astute Swedish observer of American race relations who authored the monumental study of black Americans that had been commissioned and funded by Carnegie Corporation of New York, An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy (1944). Cataloguing the various ways that white Americans discriminated against black Americans, Myrdal argued in the two-volume manuscript that this discriminatory treatment ran counter to national American egalitarian ideals, and that white Americans needed to mobilize themselves and their federal government to bridge these moral gaps.

The current issue of Humanity hosts a symposium on the Swedish scholar with the stated goal of expanding readers’ understandings of his work, based on his varied and complex career. After all, Gunnar Myrdal published his first manuscript in 1919, several decades before An American Dilemma, and his last in 1984. Beyond his role as a Swedish Alexis de Tocqueville traveling across the Atlantic to the United States in the late 1930s, he was an economics professor in Stockholm, a member of the Swedish parliament, and later a United Nations bureaucrat. In his publications, he analyzed group inequalities at the global level and in different national contexts from Sweden and the United States to India. Providing essays on his key works throughout his lifetime, the contributors have aimed to offer a holistic picture of his intellectual transformation. Helping in this process, fellow historian Jamie Martin and I penned an introduction providing summaries of each essay’s thesis and highlighting the continuities and changes that together they suggest in Myrdal’s scholarly concerns.

Following in chronological order, the forum begins with Nils Gilman’s analysis of Gunnar and Alva Reimer Myrdal’s Kris i befolkningsfrågan (Crisis in the Population Question, 1934) and Lauri Tähtinen’s presentation of Varning för fredsoptimism (Warning for Peace Optimism, 1944); a book that was published the same year as An American Dilemma. In my contribution to the symposium, I link this American text to the author’s previous work in Sweden.

Focusing on Myrdal’s publications from 1956 to 1958, Jamie Martin, Samuel Moyn and Isaac Nakhimovsky illustrate how the Swedish author grappled with the question of whether national welfare states could co-exist with a broader “welfare world”; a concept that Myrdal struggled to define throughout these years. Benjamin Siegel and Simon Reid-Henry then focus on Myrdal’s last two major works, Asian Drama (1968) and Challenge of World Poverty (1970) where the Swedish author continued to examine ways to extend the national welfare model internationally. As Reid-Henry illustrates, though, the author ultimately gave up his vision in favor of a more humanitarian response to global inequality. Myrdal did so after reasoning that the very nationalism that he had encouraged in his earlier writings—and which fueled the establishment of more equitable national communities—discouraged the formation of transnational allegiance at the international level.

The symposium does not delve deeply into the history of philanthropy, so it is necessary to move beyond the collection of essays a bit to explain its relevance for HistPhil readers. From my own research on Gunnar Myrdal and the Carnegie and Rockefeller foundations, for example, I can testify that he was a darling of these American philanthropies during the first decades of the twentieth century.

Before Carnegie Corporation recruited him in the late 1930s to direct the study of black Americans that became An American Dilemma, for example, Myrdal already was well connected to the Rockefeller organizations. At the recommendation of the elder Swedish economist and the Rockefeller philanthropies’ social science adviser in the country, Gösta Bagge, Myrdal and his wife had spent the 1929-30 academic year in the United States. The Rockefellers’ Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial had initiated these fellowships in the 1920s with the idea that young European scholars such as the Myrdals, who had been isolated from American social scientists during the World War, could learn from their American colleagues’ scholarly advancements. Upon the completion of the year-long fellowship, these foundation leaders expected their young European prodigies to help build these scholarly fields across the Atlantic and to translate this knowledge to policymakers in their own countries. If only European policymakers had been exposed to social scientific knowledge, staff and board members at the Rockefeller organizations reasoned, they could have managed tensions within their polities better and thus could have avoided the Great War. By funding the social sciences in Europe and encouraging scholars such as the Myrdals to apply their knowledge, the Rockefeller organizations assumed that they were playing their part in avoiding a second global catastrophe on the continent.

After their fellowship year in the United States, Gunnar and Alva Myrdal could have blended into the crowd of fellowship recipients in Europe, but they didn’t. Actually far from it, though Gunnar rather than Alva enjoyed much of the fame and adulation for their collaborative work (A form of gender inequity in the social sciences that, as economist Heather Sarsons and the political scientists behind “Women Also Know Stuff” explain, continues to this day).

During the subsequent years, the Rockefeller Foundation’s staff discussed Gunnar as one of its bright stars in Europe. The director of the Rockefeller Foundation’s social science division wrote to a fellow colleague: “In granting Myrdal [a social science] fellowship, the Foundation placed its money on a winning horse! I wish we might register a larger proportion of such notable success.” Explaining this quotation, historian Walter Jackson noted that “Rockefeller officials admired in Myrdal not merely his brilliance as an economist but his effectiveness in applying social science research to legislation and public policy.” In particular, they admired his and Alva Myrdal’s success in translating their social scientific analyses of falling population numbers in Sweden into effective public policies to increase fertility rates in the country.

In the late 1930s, Carnegie Corporation President Frederick P. Keppel reached out to the Swedish economist in Stockholm and invited him to direct a study of black Americans that he hoped would lead to new public policies on race relations in the United States. In my contribution to the symposium, I explain Keppel’s reasons for thinking that Myrdal was the most appropriate candidate for this task. But here, I simply would like to emphasize that Keppel, much like his colleagues at the Rockefeller organizations, found great value in funding the social sciences as a means of strengthening governments’ responses to societal instabilities. Unlike his colleagues at the Rockefeller foundations, however, Keppel supported these fields in colonial Africa as in the United States with a particular eye toward pacifying group tensions among whites and blacks.

By following Gunnar Myrdal’s relationship with the Rockefeller and Carnegie groups during the first half of the twentieth century, it becomes clear that these private American foundations played significant roles in the formation of the welfare state in Sweden and in strengthening white Americans’ commitment to racial desegregation in the United States. By funding—and continuing to fund—this “winning horse” throughout the 1930s and 1940s, big philanthropy revealed its commitment to a world where scientifically-informed national bureaucrats responded to societal problems.

After the 1950s, Myrdal was still connected to philanthropic leaders in New York City, but he never enjoyed the same reverence or financial assistance as he had in the 1930s and 1940s. From one perspective, this simply could have reflected the loosening of ties between new staff and board members at the Rockefeller and Carnegie foundations and a former grantee. But it also likely represented the shifting intellectual interests of these funders and Myrdal over the years. By the later part of the century, Rockefeller and Carnegie foundations no longer were as committed to the applied social sciences as the key to social peace. Even more, the American liberal policy elite that sat on these foundation boards in the later part of the century likely found Myrdal’s developing interest in transferring the national welfare model to a global stage either irrelevant or worrisome.

From the 1920s through the early 1940s, though, Myrdal had been in sync with leading American foundations’ efforts to define and address societal problems through national state apparatuses. In this way, then, the early essays in Humanity’s dossier showcase a time period when Gunnar Myrdal and the American philanthropic elite greatly believed in the ability of national governments to confront social tensions. In this vein, philanthropic leaders at the time greatly admired his work. For today’s practitioners, these essays serve as a reminder that philanthropies and their star grantees have not always revered the private sector as the best means for addressing social problems.

The later essays in the dossier also merit practitioners’ attention. Illustrating the potential of Myrdal’s suggestion for a “welfare world,” these articles present a different model for addressing global inequalities than the private enterprise one to which we are most accustomed. As Myrdal saw it, citizens should confront inequities across national boundaries out of a sense of moral obligation similar to the moral dilemma that he encouraged white Americans to feel in An American Dilemma. Though he never quite defined the practical requirements for replicating the national welfare state model at an international context, his later publications help challenge our contemporary assumptions about the ways that our global community must and should be structured.

Throughout his lifetime, it is clear, Gunnar Myrdal analyzed what it meant to be part of an equitable national and global community. He definitely fell short of these goals, not least by constantly looking to white bureaucrats rather than minority groups and grassroots activists as change-leaders, and we explain some of these shortcomings in the current issue of Humanity. However, he grappled earnestly with the complexities of bringing about more egalitarian national and global societies and that’s worthy of admiration. It also inspires. Like me, I predict that many HistPhil readers looking through Humanity’s collection of essays might find themselves disagreeing with the Swedish economist at times but also wanting to build upon his vision for a better, more equitable world.

-Maribel Morey, HistPhil co-editor.


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