Book Forum on Reich's Just Giving / New Works in the Field

Rob Reich Responds

Editors’ Note: HistPhil’s forum on Rob Reich’s Just Giving: Why Philanthropy is Failing Democracy and How it Can Do Better (2018) has included three separate reviews of the book by HistPhil co-editors Stanley N. Katz, Maribel Morey, and Benjamin Soskis. The forum closes with a response to these reviews from the book’s author, Rob Reich.

In Just Giving: Why Philanthropy is Failing Democracy and How It Can Do Better, I argue that philanthropy deserves greater scrutiny rather than our automatic gratitude. I now find my book the subject of scrutiny. And I want to say that it is an enormous privilege to have an array of exceptional historians engaging with my work. As in any endeavor, scrutiny delivers an opportunity for dialogue and for learning. I want to express my gratitude to Stanley Katz, Maribel Morey, and Ben Soskis for their reviews.

Just Giving is a work of political philosophy. My critics are historians. Katz, Morey, and Soskis fault me in varying degrees for not engaging more deeply with history. Soskis puts it succinctly: he wishes my arguments about the relationship between philanthropy and democracy were more firmly staked to particular philanthropic interventions in particular moments. In responding to their stimulating and insightful criticisms, I want to begin at this general level of the relationship between political philosophy and history.  Doing so will help illuminate my responses to various criticisms in each review.

Political philosophy sometimes proceeds in a mode that is wholly removed from the world, where the correct principles of justice or democracy are independent of facts about human nature, psychology, current or historical institutional arrangements, and the feasibility of realizing these principles. It’s a form of what is sometimes called ideal or utopian theory. The rough idea is that philosophy can, or perhaps should, begin by analyzing the content of particular ideals – such as liberty and equality – and their relationship to each other without wishing to understand at all how they are lived or implemented. Asking questions about realizing ideals is unhelpfully concessionary to an imperfect world. This is political philosophy without any need for history, indeed which in its extreme form rejects history altogether.

This is not the mode of political philosophy I pursue. True, I ask questions about philanthropy that are in certain respects idealized and intended to begin from first principle: if we were designing a liberal democratic society from scratch, what role, if any, would we want to assign to philanthropy? Or to put it more generally, what role should philanthropy play in a liberal democratic society?

Yet these are questions that benefit from engagement with history and social science. There are many reasons this is so, but for me the chief reason is that a philosophical specification of ideals such as justice, liberty, or equality is not enough to inform questions of institutional design. If we want from political philosophy something more than a crystalline palace in the sky that humans might admire from our earthly quarters, then we need to marry a consideration of ideals along with an examination of how these ideals have been put into practice in different places at different times, how various institutional arrangements have performed, and how policies and norms adapt to ever evolving social circumstances. We can ask first principle questions about philanthropy in a democratic society, but if we seek to evaluate and possibly improve upon our current arrangements, these first principle questions will invite us to consider the historical practice of philanthropy and the social scientific study of how different public policies and social norms yield different philanthropic results.

Just Giving engages a wide variety of social science research. At different places in the book, I ask, for example: what is the effect on charitable giving of the charitable contributions deduction? Does private giving to public schools ameliorate or exacerbate school finance inequality? What might account for the different shape of philanthropy across different democratic societies?

And I seek to learn from history. The book opens, for example, with a short account of the failed attempt by John D. Rockefeller to have the U.S. Congress authorize the incorporation of the Rockefeller Foundation. The lesson: there were moments in our history in which there was no standing invitation to create a general-purpose foundation and in which prominent voices were deeply skeptical of plutocratic philanthropy.

But Just Giving is neither a book of social science nor of history. I use history and social science so that we might better understand how abstract ideals such as liberty and equality should inform the design of public policy. The main aim of Just Giving is to ask a question of first principle: What attitude should a liberal democratic state have toward the preference of an individual to make a philanthropic donation of her money or property? It is, I think, a fundamental question in that it will arise in any society, liberal democratic or otherwise, and a political theory should provide the resources to answer it. This is the overarching goal of the book: to articulate and defend a political theory of philanthropy, even as I realize that other scholars might produce a different political theory with different implications for the role that philanthropy should play in a democratic society. And even as a political theory of philanthropy will not on its own suffice to provide a fine-grained institutional blueprint for policy. To yield to that temptation is to yield to the occasional desire of philosophers to be philosopher kings or queens. What a political theory can offer is a framework for understanding the most important questions to ask and an argument about how various ideals or norms should inform, but not fully determine, public policy. A political theory of democracy defends a particular political order over non-democratic rivals, but leaves open a multiplicity of democratic institutional arrangements – direct and representative democracy, for example. So too a political theory of philanthropy defends a particular framework for assessing the role that philanthropy should play in a democracy, but leaves open a multiplicity of detailed institutional practices and arrangements that await further examination.

What is the relevance for these methodological considerations to the particular criticisms by Katz, Morey, and Soskis? To see the importance, start with Stanley Katz’s remarks about the ideal of equality and its connection to philanthropy.

Stan criticizes my understanding of equality and its place within democracy. He writes that when he first met me, more than decade ago, I was strongly attached to equality. “Rob was primarily concerned with the failure of philanthropists to abide by the imperative of democratic equality. He stressed poverty alleviation as the most important objective of good philanthropy. Possibly he was then influenced by my friend and colleague, Peter Singer, but in any case Rob’s argument then was that equality (in the form of poverty alleviation) was the only justifiable goal of charitable giving.” Now, by contrast, I recognize and endorse a much wider range of philanthropic purposes that are compatible with democracy.

It is true that I shifted my view, but I did not diminish my attachment to or understanding of equality. I changed my mind about where an egalitarian norm should have force. I changed my mind, that is, about how the norm should inform the institutional design of philanthropy and philanthropic policy.

When I first met Stan, I saw equality as most important when applied to the space of distributive justice. Valuing equality would imply that charity should result in assistance to the poor, alleviation of suffering, the lessening of disadvantage. A defense of equality would lead us to be concerned chiefly with the distribution of charitable dollars.

Maribel Morey’s review also discusses my analysis of the relationship between philanthropy and equality. When I demonstrate how infrequently American philanthropy is directed toward poverty alleviation, and how the policy mechanism of the tax deduction amplifies the voices of the wealthy, I conclude that equality has at best an uneasy relationship to philanthropy. With this in mind, Morey writes, “Reich abandons the equality rationale for philanthropy… ”

But this is wrong. I did not reject equality; I came to understand its significance for institutional design in a different way. There are multiple dimensions in which to see the egalitarian norm at work. It can apply to the voice or input end of philanthropy rather than to the distributive or output end. I now understand equality to condemn the plutocratic biases that are baked into the current policy mechanisms, such as the charitable contributions deduction, that structure U.S. philanthropy. To support the equal voice of each citizen in contributing to a diverse and pluralistic civil society, I argue that the deduction should be replaced with a capped tax credit and that a democratic society might also support a civil society stakeholding grant for each citizen. From the standpoint of equality, the chief public policy mechanism in the United States to stimulate charitable giving – the tax deduction – is indefensible.

Katz goes on to explain that his disagreement with me about democracy and equality is much broader, in part because “equality is not a formal value in the constitutional structure of the United States.” But as a philosopher, I am not trying to give the best interpretation of the U.S Constitution. I am concerned to give the best interpretation of equality and its relationship to philanthropy; this is the subject of the entire second chapter. The book aims for relevance far beyond the United States, after all. It is a book about philanthropy’s role in democratic societies, not just in American democracy.

Katz notices, of course, that I aim to analyze the more general relationship between philanthropy and democracy. But he puzzlingly glosses my argument as merely empirical. “In the end Rob thinks that philanthropy can serve the purposes of democracy.  It does so, he argues, when it serves the goals of pluralism, innovation, the limitation of orthodoxy and the production of public goods. But these are largely empirical benefits, and it is hard to see that philanthropy is the best state mechanism for securing them in a democratic society.”

I don’t see these as “empirical benefits,” and I’m not sure what Katz has in mind here in identifying “pluralism, innovation, the limitation of orthodoxy, and the production of public goods” as empirical. These are part of a more general argument about how to understand what the relationship between philanthropy and democracy should be.

The case is built not on an examination of the historical practice of philanthropy in the United States or elsewhere. It’s a case built upon a particular understanding of democratic theory that has two components. The first component is familiar and, I hope, unobjectionable: the idea that a core ideal of democracy is political equality, that all citizens have an equal opportunity to wield political influence, whether that happens at the ballot box (and where one person, one vote is a deeply seated norm) or in the informal public sphere of civil society. The second component is the idea that what recommends democracy over rival forms of political organization is democracy’s capacity to confront and respond to social problems as they arise. In the book I call this “democratic experimentalism,” drawing upon Deweyan pragmatism as the underlying framework for understanding how best to design democratic institutions. The combined features here yield an understanding of democracy that is not meant to be rooted in any particular democratic society, and certainly not a theory that is specific to the United States. And it is an understanding of democracy that delivers my conclusion, for example, that philanthropy can be a salutary extra-governmental mechanism of social innovation and problem-solving.

It’s a failing of the book if, as Katz complains, the core of my critique is “opaque.” If philosophers are to be counted on for anything, it is clarity even if they can’t persuade. What, Katz asks, do I mean when I say that philanthropy is an artifact and not an invention of the state? I mean that though the philanthropic impulse to give is universal and time immemorial – hence not an invention – the form that philanthropy assumes in any given society depends on the social norms and policies that give shape and structure to the philanthropic impulse. Soskis understands me clearly when he writes that my brief historical overviews of the liturgical system in ancient Greece, the waqf in Muslim societies, and the arguments of Turgot and Mill against perpetual foundations are meant to “denaturalize” philanthropy. They reveal the historical contingency of philanthropy and show, I agree, how historical analysis and abstract political philosophy can serve as allies.

I’m grateful to Morey for pairing her review of Just Giving with the far more popular and widely discussed Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, by Anand Giridharadas. Winners Take All is a stinging polemic, made all the more potent by Giridharadas’s powerful prose and assembly of narratively rich portraits of people such as Ford Foundation’s president Darren Walker, philanthropist Laurie Tisch, and my collaborator and fellow political philosopher Chiara Cordelli.

Giridharadas observes that we exhort philanthropists to do more – please sign the Giving Pledge! We expect them to lead efforts at making the world a better place – cure all disease! And we place them on the covers of magazines, lauding them for their generosity. But we never ask them to reform the structure that allowed them to amass enormous wealth in the first place.

And this is not accidental. Giridharadas hammers home one main point: the harms done by capital accumulation daylight cannot be undone by the benefits created by philanthropic moonlight. Philanthropy is too often an invitation to excuse the rapacious money-making acts of the plutocrat, made all the worse by inviting the same kind of marketplace mentality that permitted the money making into the arena of do-gooding.

There’s a philosophical way to make Giridharadas’s point, and I offer it in Just Giving. If I steal your wallet and decide to donate its contents for a good cause rather than purchase things for myself, my philanthropic aim does not excuse the initial theft.

As I discuss in the book, it was none other than Immanuel Kant who wrote that individuals should not deceive themselves that they are beneficent when their wealth is the product of structural injustice. “Having the resources to practice such beneficence as depends on the goods of fortune is, for the most part, a result of certain human beings being favored through the injustice of government, which introduces an inequality of wealth that makes others need their beneficence. Under such circumstances, does a rich man’s help to the needy, on which he so readily prides himself as something meritorious, really deserve to be called beneficence at all?”[1]

One of Morey’s main complaints about Giridharadas’s critique is not the lack of philosophy but the lack of history. Giridharadas is simply reviving, in Morey’s view, a long history of criticizing economic elites in the United States, an evergreen and deep suspicion of the power of plutocrats.

With this I agree, and I hope the inclusion in my own book of the ancient Athenian practice of liturgies, the evolution of the waqf in Muslim societies, the Enlightenment era critiques of perpetual foundations, and story of how the U.S. Congress rejected John D. Rockefeller’s request to charter the Rockefeller Foundation show how political critique and history can be allied to yield an analysis more powerful than polemic alone.

It helps to inform contemporary criticism of Gates, Zuckerberg, and Bezos, for example, when we recall what President Teddy Roosevelt said of Rockefeller’s proposed general-purpose foundation. “No amount of charities in spending such fortunes,” he observed, “can compensate in any way for the misconduct in acquiring them.”

It also helps to remember the words of the English writer G.K. Chesterton, stinging with the same polemical tone that Giridharadas brings. Writing from New Zealand about Rockefeller in 1909, Chesterton laid down the following critique, which could be inserted completely unchanged into Giridharadas’s Winners Take All:

Philanthropy, as far as l can see, is rapidly becoming the recognizable mark of a wicked man. We have often sneered at the superstition and cowardice of the mediaeval barons who thought that giving lands to the Church would wipe out the memory of their raids or robberies; but modern capitalists seem to have exactly the same notion; with this not unimportant addition, that in the case of the capitalists the memory of the robberies is really wiped out. This, after all, seems to be the chief difference between the monks who took land and gave pardons and the charity organisers who take money and give praise; the difference is that the monks wrote down in their books and chronicles, “Received three hundred acres from a bad baron”; whereas the modern experts and editors record the three hundred acres and call him a good baron.

Soskis’s review offers a deft interpretation of how Just Giving couples political philosophy with history. He begins by emphasizing how the arguments I make are sensitive to time in two respects. First, I examine philanthropy across time, though admittedly not with the depth of a historian. And second, I locate one of the best arguments on behalf of the role that philanthropy can play in a democratic society as resting in the temporal dimensions – or longer time horizons – on which philanthropy can operate in comparison to democratic institutions and firms in the marketplace.

Soskis provides an excellent summary of what I had hoped to achieve in my engagement with history. By beginning with the Rockefeller Foundation story and in devoting an entire opening chapter to different historical episodes of how public policies and social norms have imparted distinctive structures to philanthropy in different eras, Soskis observes:

These historical examples serve as a sort of opening tonic to denaturalize philanthropic policy and induce in the reader an appreciation of historical contingency. It’s a good example of how historical analysis and more abstract political theorizing can serve as allies. In this case, the historical approach demonstrates the extent to which philanthropy is, in Reich’s term, an artifact of the state.

If history reveals the contingency of philanthropic policy, and we are in possession of a political theory that foregrounds the value of political equality and an experimentalist, problem-solving framework for democratic governance, we confront two main questions that Soskis correctly says animate my book. First, in light of how little ordinary charitable giving is actually concerned with poverty alleviation or redistribution, and given that big philanthropy is definitionally a plutocratic element in a democratic setting, what could legitimize, if anything, a role for philanthropy in a democratic society? And second, assuming that a case for legitimacy can be made, what policy choices should we make to structure philanthropy?

Soskis offers a sharp summary of the pluralism and discovery rationales that I argue provide an answer to the legitimacy questions. And he then turns to inquire about how these rationales can inform the policy framework for philanthropy. And it is here that Soskis argues that history, not philosophy, is better suited to offer guidance.

So how constructive are the discovery and pluralism rationales? In the abstract, I think they make a lot of sense. But as Just Giving recognizes in other respects, abstracted considerations of philanthropy are only of modest utility. If the values we assign pluralism and discovery are themselves historically contingent, then philanthropy is best assessed in time.

Soskis wonders how Bezos’s space exploration would fit the discovery rationale, how the Koch Brothers’ funding of free-market research would fit the pluralism rationale, and so on. He writes that we can only provide an answer by grounding ourselves in the fine-grained details “of the socio-political particulars of the giving at hand.” And this Just Giving has not provided. Not even attempted.

I’m heartened to know that Soskis believes I’ve asked the right questions. And even more, that I’ve provided an essential framework for posing the questions and understanding how to begin to answer them. But I think he’s right: Just Giving does not provide a fine-grained set of answers about Bezos, the Koch Brothers, or any other current philanthropic endeavor. I mention a few historical examples of philanthropy – Carnegie’s funding of libraries – that fit the discovery model and that operate in the democratic spirit I argue is the prerequisite for philanthropy’s legitimacy. But I do not canvas the wide range of contemporary philanthropic practices of different foundations or of mass giving.

The book ends by mentioning some of the newer developments in American philanthropy: the rise of donor-advised funds and the increasing preference of plutocrats to create completely nontransparent LLCs rather than private foundations. I hope to learn more about the particular approaches of different philanthropic foundations in the current moment and whether they fit the political theory of philanthropy I offer in Just Giving.

In the end, I share Soskis’s view, one which I believe is also embraced by Morey and Katz: political philosophy needs to engage with history and social science to provide closely observed, fully action-guiding answers to questions about the fit between any particular philanthropic approach and the pluralism and discovery rationales. I hope to do some of this work myself. But it is work suitable for many, and I also hope that Just Giving stimulates others, such as Katz, Morey, and Soskis, to join in.

-Rob Reich

Rob Reich is Professor of Political Science at Stanford University and currently serves as the co-director of the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society and director of the Center for Ethics in Society. He is the author of the current cover story in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Philanthropy in the Service of Democracy.


[1] Immanuel Kant, The Metaphysics of Morals (6:454), in Practical Philosophy: The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Immanuel Kant, Mary Gregor, ed., (Cambridge University Press, 1996), 573.

2 thoughts on “Rob Reich Responds

  1. To put it simply, philanthropy is not concerned about “justice” or “equality”. Philanthropists spend their money to promote a certain socio-political agenda according to their “passions and interests”. More theoretically, they operate as “organic intellectuals” of their class and exhibit this unorthodox financial behavior (aka Philanthropy) to spread their culture and mindset. Finally, philanthropy is a form of noble politics (therefore democratic deficit is expected) applied from top to bottom, it’s well-intended elitism which realizes the need of the “others”.


  2. Rob Reich lays out two key questions in this conversation about his book, Just Giving: “First, in light of how little ordinary charitable giving is actually concerned with poverty alleviation or redistribution, and given that big philanthropy is definitionally a plutocratic element in a democratic setting, what could legitimize, if anything, a role for philanthropy in a democratic society? And second, assuming that a case for legitimacy can be made, what policy choices should we make to structure philanthropy?”
    Let’s assume our overall goal is to expand and strengthen a democracy. Effective policy goals would include increased equality of opportunity and the redistribution of resources to insure political equality. Since wealth translates easily into political power, radical income inequality would have to be reduced. Policies that inhibit movement toward greater democracy or move society in the opposite direction would have to be modified or rejected. Among these unacceptable policies would be any that increase the political power of the wealthy. Success in moving toward the goal of increased democracy would necessarily shrink the number of mega-wealthy individuals, their proportion of society’s wealth, and their political power.
    Citizens in a functioning democracy could always decide to encourage philanthropy with a tax break to donors. But the tax break would be designed to avoid undermining equal opportunity and political equality in any way. One example of such a policy would be a capped tax credit open to all.
    Democracy requires pluralism, but the following argument make no sense: pluralism increases when tax breaks entice the mega wealthy to pay for society-shaping projects that they happen to like. Again, wealth translates into power, and the wealthy already play an inordinately powerful role in society. Tax breaks simply increase their wealth and political power and weaken the functioning of whatever pluralism already exists.
    And what about the following speculation: giving the mega wealthy a tax break might entice them to try to produce innovations that might someday benefit society. The mega wealthy get to choose which innovations will benefit society and will be funded. They decide how to design and realize the innovations. But who lives with the results of their choices as well as the consequences of lost public revenue that’s gone to tax breaks? Everyone in society. The harm of more power to the plutocrats far outweighs the hypothetical benefits of unknown innovations.
    There’s not likely to be a more informed conversation on the justification for big philanthropy in a democracy than this one posted on Hist/Phil, but I’m not at all persuaded that pluralism and innovation succeed as justifications.


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