COVID-19 Pandemic / Current Events and Philanthropy / New Works in the Field

Power, Ignorance and the New Philanthropic Enlightenment

Editors’ Note: An early critic of philanthrocapitalism and the Gates Foundation – arguing in No Such Thing as a Free Gift: The Gates Foundation and the Price of Philanthropy (2015) that in the age of philanthrocapitalism “[g]iving more” had become “an avenue for getting more” –  Linsey McGoey introduces her newest book, The Unknowers: How Strategic Ignorance Rules the World (2019). For HistPhil, McGoey details the relevance of The Unknowers for scholars and practitioners of philanthropy, both during and after the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The global pandemic we face and the existential threat it poses, to our lives and the tattered social safety nets that we all need to survive, are a reminder of the political importance of ignorance and the power of the unknown.

Both the UK and the US government have exploited “known unknowns” in self-serving ways during the crisis. For example, both governments have periodically pointed to data on low rates of infection to suggest that they are managing the virus exceptionally well, when most people can easily see the scientific fallacy here. In reality, low rates of testing and detection are responsible for the low infection numbers, a problem evident since February when it became clear that both nations had shortages of diagnostic tests. That reality didn’t stop Donald Trump from boasting in March that “early, intense action” by US authorities helped to produce “dramatically fewer cases of the virus in the United States than are now present in Europe.”

When the numbers started to spiral, Trump switched gears, ramping up his attacks on China, once again weaponizing ignorance, but in a different way. He claimed China’s deliberate ignorance – keeping the US in the dark about the virus – was the reason for his government’s inability to act sooner. It is true that China’s response had many failings,  including penalizing doctors who leaked information out of concern for public safety. But it is also true that by the end of December, China has alerted the World Health Organization that it was battling a spreading virus. The CDC in the US started private briefings with Trump on the virus in January. Nothing except the US and UK’s own missteps can explain multiple errors with diagnostic testing ever since, including the US decision to reject the standard WHO-approved diagnostic tests that were used in nations such as South Korea since mid-January, and the UK decision not to heed widespread calls for mass testing and contact tracing months ago, a delay heavily criticized by experts such as Lancet editor Richard Horton.

In a way, all authorities were trying to offset their own errors by pointing to the willful ignorance of other political actors. The role of deliberate ignorance in politics is a surprisingly unstudied phenomenon, in part because it is hard to measure. While there is a robust sociology of knowledge – examining how knowledge is produced, how it is funded,  and which power bases it serves – there has never been a similar sociology of ignorance, until recently.

My recent book, The Unknowers: how strategic ignorance rules the world (2019), explores how a “will to ignorance” enables the powerful to maintain their dominance over other groups. I suggest that at multiple levels of society – from government, to policy-making, to science and corporate regulation – strategic  ignorance is often a form of power. I define strategic ignorance as the exploitation of the unknowns in any environment in order to gain political or commercial advantage. But I also suggest that there can be positive aspects to ignorance, or at least to giving it more scrutiny, because wider recognition of the ignorance of oppressive groups can help the disempowered to seek redress for past harms, a point similar to Edgar Villanueva’s Decolonizing Wealth (2018). Here, Villanueva notes that acknowledging wealth privileges, which have tended to be ignored in polite company, is essential for securing accountability for ongoing forms of expropriation from native peoples.

How does this relate to private philanthropy and its history more generally? By illuminating two problems that philanthropic donors, scholars and grantees all face: first, the problem of overestimating a person’s knowledge or moral intentions because of their wealth; and second, the problem of underestimating a person’s knowledge because of their poverty.

A goal of my book is the same goal that many non-profit groups try to impress on donors: to point out that super-rich people do not know as much as they think about complex social realities outside of the areas where they made their wealth.

As scholars of philanthropy have pointed out for decades, the problem here is that the elevated social status of very rich people can lead to arrogant unwillingness to learn from their own policy missteps. And the people who are best placed to help the very rich to learn from their mistakes— their grantees—are the same people whom the wealthy often prefer to lecture to rather than listen to. This trend is compounded by a wider community, including the media, with incentives to sooth and inflate the egos of the rich.

To this point, even if journalists do not personally think a donor is making good decisions, they often shy away from admitting it in their reporting. I once asked a journalist at Fast Company, for example, why they constantly published far more stories about grants from the Gates Foundation than government aid programs, given that government aid money dwarfs the amount spent by philanthropists. The journalist said that it was because of clickbait and the fact that clicks soared whenever Gates was mentioned in a headline. Maybe it helps Fast Company’s ad revenue, but this pattern leaves the public unaware of actual spending breakdowns.

In The Unknowers, I go on to describe one of history’s most egregious examples of misplaced faith in the morality and knowledge-base of a major philanthropic donor: Henry Ford, whose newspaper, The Dearborn Independent, spread virulent anti-Semitic lies in the inter-war period (“The International Jew: The World’s Problem” was a typical headline). Ford eventually publicly apologized, but he also blamed the anti-Semitic content on his editors, which helped him gain widespread public sympathy, despite his staff insisting that editorial decisions at the newspaper came directly from Ford. Buttressing these claims from Ford’s staff, US author William Allen White suggested that Ford himself was a key architect of the Dearborn Independent’s propaganda. “It is a sad commentary on humanity,” White observed, “that Ford’s great wealth has not revealed his ignorance, his mental sloth, and his incapacity to think. Man is always inclined to feel that greatness in one field of activity presumes greatness in all activities.”

The Unknowers argues that great wealth often does not reveal one’s ignorance; on the contrary, it actively conceals it, and sometimes quite literally, through the use of tax havens that veil income and wealth from sight, but also, and just as dangerously, through the fostering of pervasive ideological myths that even the smartest academics can be taken in by. All human beings are prone to cognitive biases, but particularly when academics have achieved great career success or work at elite institutions, the less they tend to be forced to confront external feedback loops that can help to check their own ignorance.

An example of intelligent academics failing to question received academic wisdom is Harvard University psychologist Steven Pinker, who made his name in psychology but has since expanded into sociology, history and other fields, often without sufficient understanding about the different historical figures upon whom he bases his theories. In The Unknowers, I point out that Pinker’s recent book Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Humanism, and Progress (2018) has a number of historical errors, including his erroneous interpretation of the work of the early political economist Adam Smith. Pinker insists, for example, that Smith was a “shared prosperity” thinker who wrote that private profits always have positive consequences for wider society, using this point to propagate Pinker’s oft-voiced mantra: that the world is “better than ever” thanks to capitalist, free-market expansion.

But the real Adam Smith was actually far more critical of unregulated markets than Pinker acknowledges. Smith was certainly a believer in free trade, but he was also highly sympathetic to governmental regulation in a way that Pinker doesn’t acknowledge. For example, Smith argued in Wealth of Nations (1776) that there should be government restrictions on interest rates to protect debtors, an important point that needs reviving today at a time of explosive personal debt loads.

What does this debate among two academics about Adam Smith’s ideas have to do with philanthropy? Quite a bit. Because I argue that Pinker’s selective reading of Smith is symptomatic of a much larger problem of groupthink in mainstream economics today, and this groupthink often extends to policies adopted by leading philanthropists (Bill Gates, for example, has often remarked that Pinker is his favourite writer). Pinker is not an economist, but his ideas align with mainstream economists such as Harvard University’s Gregory Mankiw, who wrote an influential essay after the 2008 financial crisis, ‘Defending the One Percent’ (2013).

In this essay, published in the Journal of Economic Perspectives, Mankiw reiterates the commonplace belief today that billionaire wealth is fairly gained, rather than accrued through illegitimate rent-seeking, something that Smith suggested tended to underpin a lot of wealth in his day. Today, different forms of crony rentier gains that Smith lamented have not disappeared, they are just more ignored. Especially in “free market” nations such as the United States, economists such as Mankiw have stopped studying different forms of rent-seeking the same way that Smith once did, a historical transformation I describe in more depth in The Unknowers.

To combat academic echo chambers, private philanthropy is and can play an enormous role in funding scholarship outside the mainstream, helping to fulfill philanthropy’s oft-voiced but curiously never-reached goal: to actually disburse wealth concentration and limit corporate power. Given that many foundations such as the Gates Foundation are more a handmaiden to corporate power than any brake on it, I am not hopeful that organizations will fund the new anti-Mankiwian revolution in economic thought that is needed. But other organizations such the Hewlett Foundation and the Open Society Foundation can and are funding the development of new economic ideas.

Right now, during the COVID-19 pandemic, it is probably far more important for donor money to be earmarked for frontline charities serving those people who are most debilitated by the virus. But in time, more funding for heterodox economic thinktanks or public universities across the world will help to fuel the revolution in economic thought that is needed. The embers of a new economics are flashing today; let philanthropic winds fan them.

It is already started, of course: the Hewlett Foundation has funded an initiative called Economics for Inclusive Prosperity (EIP), which has already developed genuinely new and exciting ideas for government policies that could help to narrow inequality, make trade fairer, and establish more secure welfare protections.

Over the 20th century, “welfare state” became a dirty word, and we can thank “dark money” donors in large part for that development. But today, the coronavirus has made clear that there is nothing to lament and much to commend in governments that take seriously the welfare and wellbeing of all citizens, rather than simply the rich. Heterodox economists and other social scientists have ideas for how, and I outlined some in The Unknowers.

Finally, thanks to criticism of private philanthropy from scholars as Erika Kohl-Arenas, Nicole Aschoff, Maribel Morey, Megan Tompkins-Stange, Rob Reich and many others, including my own criticisms of elite philanthropy in No Such Thing as a Free Gift: The Gates Foundation and the Price of Philanthropy (2015), there is now widespread recognition that wealth concentration, wealth inequality, and excessive billionaire power are thwarting the effort to create a just economy.

The problem is not a lack of ideas, it is a lack of political will – partly because rolling out new policies means taxing the wealth and limiting the power of billionaires who have far too much of it. It means purposefully unveiling the ignorance of elites and the rest of us who facilitate the maintenance of this veil, something heterodox economists at EIP and elsewhere are also trying to do.

Last year, for example, Boston Review published an overview of new proposals from EIP economists; I was struck by this apt remark: “Many economists dismiss the role of power because they think it cannot be studied rigorously or belongs outside economics.”

The dismissal of power relationships by mainstream economists has been one of the most glaring forms of strategic ignorance in the last century. It needs to change, and many scholars across the social sciences are starting to effect that change. We need to move from strategic ignorance to strategic illumination, and a new philanthropy willing to fund radically different economic ideas is helping that new enlightenment.

-Linsey McGoey

Linsey McGoey is Professor of Sociology at the University of Essex, and Director of the Centre for Research in Economic Sociology and Innovation (CRESI). She is on the advisory board of the Centre for the Study of Contemporary Solidarity, University of Vienna, and author of No Such Thing as a Free Gift (Verso, 2015), and The Unknowers (Zed 2019).

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