Is philanthropy, by its very nature, a threat to democracy? Though we may laud wealthy individuals who give away their money for society’s benefit, Rob Reich shows how such generosity not only isn’t the unassailable good we think it is, but it might also undermine democratic values. Big philanthropy is often a conversion of private assets into public influence—a form of power that is largely unaccountable and tax-advantaged. And small philanthropy, or ordinary charitable giving, can be problematic as well. These outcomes are shaped by the policies that define and structure philanthropy.
Reich asks: What attitude and what policies should democracies have concerning individuals who give money away for public purposes? Differentiating between individual philanthropy and private foundations, Reich suggests that the goal of mass giving should be the decentralization of power in the production of public goods, such as the arts, education and science. For foundations, the goal should be long-term horizon innovations that enhance democratic experimentalism. Reich concludes that philanthropy, when properly structured, can play a crucial role in supporting a strong liberal democracy.
The Commonwealth Club
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