Political Scientists and Philanthropy

Is Populist Criticism of Philanthropy Justified?

Editors’ Note: HistPhil‘s new forum on political science and philanthropy, guest-edited by Sarah Reckhow and Delphia Shanks-Booth, begins with Ted Lechterman‘s piece on populist critiques of elite philanthropy.  

To date, elite philanthropy has suffered little blowback from the populist uprising that has toppled other political elites in the United States. Given the significant influence that philanthropists wield over politics and society, however, it bears considering whether populists might have valid criticisms to make of elite philanthropy, and what implications might follow. Does elite philanthropy manifest forms of disrespect toward ordinary persons?

If philanthropists can’t be said to mistreat ordinary persons, then we’ll have to conclude that any resentment toward philanthropy is unwarranted. In response to populist criticism, philanthropists might want to communicate what they do more sensitively, but they wouldn’t need to make any fundamental changes to their aims and strategies. However, if populist resentment is truly warranted, the proper response of the philanthropy world would not be to change its messaging, but rather to rethink its basic assumptions about goals and methods, and even to welcome restrictions by law.

Let’s begin by construing populism in the very broad sense as a politics of anti-elitism. To be a populist, in this sense, is simply to advocate on behalf of the working class, the great number of persons who derive income from labor-intensive occupations and tend to be relatively disadvantaged in wealth and power. According to this definition, Bernie Sanders and his supporters and Donald Trump and his supporters can all be considered populists.

Recent work in political theory suggests at least two potential grounds for anti-elitist criticism of philanthropy. A wide range of views converges on the position that the wealthy have special duties to the less advantaged, duties which they might discharge at least to some extent through philanthropy. Chiara Cordelli has offered an especially interesting argument for this position. She holds that in several advanced liberal democracies, the state has failed to adequately provide the goods and services that are required by justice. This has come at tremendous cost to citizens at lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder. Meanwhile, the wealthy have benefitted from these developments by paying far less than their fair share in taxes. Much wealth that the economic elite possess should thus be understood as unjust enrichment. In Cordelli’s view, the wealthy should not think of this wealth as wholly their own, to be spent according to their own preferences or judgment. Rather, they have a duty of “reparative justice” to use this wealth to replenish the relevant justice-required goods and services. Those who engage in philanthropy for other purposes are wronging the less advantaged.

If Cordelli’s view is correct, we should think it scandalous that only 31 percent of foundation grant dollars target economically disadvantaged persons. The fact that these grants for economic development have disproportionately flowed to urban areas might suggest further insensitivity to the claims of need.

Another school of thought contends that the problem isn’t so much that elite philanthropy fails to benefit the less advantaged, but that it exercises power over ordinary persons in fundamentally undemocratic ways. Scholars such as Ryan Pevnick and Emma Saunders-Hastings have observed that, despite its good intentions and access to considerable expertise, elite philanthropy also represents concentrated, entrenched power. One way in which this power gets deployed is by influencing the public agenda and the legislative process. By sponsoring grassroots organizations, think tanks, scholarship programs, direct lobbying, and policy experiments, wealthy patrons exercise relative dominance over civil society and public policy. As a result, elite philanthropy widens inequalities in political power, and it contributes to the sense that society’s collective affairs are controlled inequitably by the wealthy few.

Democratic critics note that elite philanthropy also allows the wealthy to bypass the political process altogether by providing public goods independently of the state. In so doing, the wealthy can exercise direct control over the lives of ordinary people. The disadvantaged beneficiaries of many nonprofit initiatives enjoy little to no say in how these programs are selected and administered. Receiving something “as a gift,” rather than by purchase or by legal entitlement, deprives a beneficiary of the ability to influence the terms of the transaction. The more a society comes to rely on nonprofit enterprise for the production and distribution of essential goods and services, the more problematic philanthropy’s structural unaccountability becomes. Those who depend upon philanthropy for their health care, education, or economic security may come to see important aspects of their lives as not up to them, governed instead by alien forces in Seattle, New York, or Silicon Valley. This subjection to the power of wealthy benefactors is offensive to persons who are supposed to relate to one another as free and equal citizens.

Taking either the reparative justice critique or the democratic critique seriously would seem to spell a radical hemming of the discretion that philanthropic elites currently enjoy. To respond directly to the reparative justice critique, philanthropists would need either to pay significantly more in taxes or to refocus the entirety of their grantmaking on the delivery of basic welfare goods.

The remedy for the democratic critique is naturally to curtail the power that philanthropists wield over ordinary people. Since the democratic critique objects to the sway that philanthropists command over political discourse and the provision of essential public goods, it might recommend that philanthropists redirect their activity to less essential and less controversial areas. That is, it might recommend that philanthropists confine their grantmaking to the arts, space exploration, or rare medical conditions. An alternative strategy for elite philanthropy to sidestep the democratic critique might be to work affirmatively to amplify the voices of those excluded from public life. For instance, instead of promoting their own ideas about social change, philanthropists could invest in broad-based civic revitalization initiatives to facilitate more inclusive and effective participation in public affairs.

Whatever the attractions of these strategies for curtailing the discretion or influence of elite philanthropists, the recent elections of populist leaders suggest grounds for caution. Jan-Werner Müller argues that populism isn’t merely a politics of anti-elitism. Populism strictly understood is inseparable from ethno-nationalism. According to this view, “populism” necessarily includes attempts to establish a singular national identity. Its attainment of official power comes along with efforts to exclude from society anyone who isn’t seen as part of the national myth. The election of populist leaders across the West has largely validated this prediction. It has also laid bare the risk of state tyranny, as populist leaders set about consolidating executive power and purifying their societies of alleged outsiders—and the potential value of elite philanthropy as a bulwark against this risk.

Another tradition in political theory has long warned of the risk of concentrated state power, and its tendency to advance factional interests while violating citizens’ basic liberties in the process. The roots of this skeptical tradition extend back at least to Alexis de Tocqueville, who argued not only in favor of constitutional checks and balances, but also for erecting rival centers of power in civil society that can contest or “countervail” the state. From this perspective, the discretionary and outsized power that elite philanthropy enjoys over ordinary citizens might be a necessary evil. It is precisely philanthropy’s concentrated and unaccountable power that allows it to respond nimbly to emergencies and to challenge overbearing populist leaders. It can send resources to the victims of populism’s excesses without needing to consult or deliberate. It can charter, coordinate, or bolster civil society organizations as they organize resistance movements, challenge state propaganda, and wage legal battles. (Think, for instance, of how elite philanthropy contested Southern governments in the United States by nourishing the civil rights movement.)

I conclude that elite philanthropy finds itself in the throes of a dilemma. While populist resentment of elite philanthropy may very well be justified, it isn’t obvious how philanthropists should react. Responding to the concerns that justify resentment could begin the process of healing a bitterly divided society. But conceding too much ground may leave elite philanthropists unable to help stem the tides of state tyranny. One thing that is clear, at least, is that the surge in populist sentiment requires elite philanthropists to do some soul-searching about the proper place of philanthropy in an embattled liberal democracy.

-Ted Lechterman

Ted Lechterman is an Interdisciplinary Ethics Postdoctoral Fellow at Stanford University, appointed jointly between the McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society and the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society. He holds a Ph.D. in political theory from Princeton University and is working on a book project on the relationship between philanthropy and democratic theory. 

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