What’s Wrong with the World

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Charity and Philanthropy

Modern philanthropy has a lot to answer for. As William Schambra expounds in this superb New Atlantis essay, the iniquities of the Lovers of Humanity go beyond their disgraceful embrace of eugenics to a deeper rejection of love itself. Preferring rational bureaucracy, distant, cold, calculating, to the humble warmth of human interaction, the philanthropists set out to do great things for mankind. They never cared to reflect on the evils they inflicted on particular men.

The statement of a British reformer goes to the heart of these philanthropic blunders:

The superficially sympathetic man flings a coin to the beggar; the more deeply sympathetic man builds an almshouse for him so that he need no longer beg; but perhaps the most radically sympathetic of all is the man who arranges that the beggar shall not be born.

The creepy, slithering evil bound up in that use of “arranges” positively chills the blood. Its progeny proliferated, as slithering things do: in eugenics, yes, but also in the broader population control mentality, the fraudulent compassion of euthanasia, the chemical truncation of human sexuality, insured, off at the end, by homicide. Each of these exemplifies the depravities man lurches into when he neglects that charitas must always be personal and concrete. Abstraction obliterates it. Even Rousseau understood this; the old Swiss madman reserved a memorable barb for cosmopolitans who “boast that they love the whole world, in order to have the right to love no one.”

And so much of philanthropy is just peacock strutting. Writing in City Journal, Guy Sorman has his own bone to pick with American philanthropy:

Call this philanthropy for show, a kind of celebrity giving designed for a mediatized age, based on grand gestures, big dollars, and heartwarming proclamations — but too little concern with actual results, which often prove paltry, redundant (as with the condom initiative), or even destructive. The American media often revel in controversy, so one might expect that the gap between expansive promises and disappointing outcomes would prompt intense journalistic interest. But for the most part, would-be statesmen-humanitarians — such as Bill Clinton, [Bill] Gates, and Al Gore, along with entertainment-world benefactors like Oprah Winfrey and academic superstars like Columbia development economist Jeffrey Sachs, have gotten a free pass for their good philanthropic intentions. They and their cohorts deserve closer scrutiny.

Sorman also notes how effective an ostentatious philanthropic agenda can be for the businessman whose success has made him unpopular:

[Bill] Gates’s transformation into a philanthropic benefactor has dramatically elevated his public status. A 2010 USA Today/Gallup poll found that Americans admired Gates the philanthropist more than they did the Dalai Lama or the pope.

Both articles merit attention. American philanthropy has earned our settled skepticism, even our open suspicion. Only a reorientation back to the ancient principles of charity — the earthy particularity of loving particular human beings, the humility of simple friendship that eschews complete solutions, the discipline of reciprocity, the repudiation of aggrandizing rationalism — can restore a philanthropy worthy of name.

Comments (19)

Aren't they complementary, though?

Is the eradication of polio not a worthwhile good - apart from individual acts of charity towards individuals in the provision of callipers, wheelchairs and so forth. Also, legislation is needed for commercial establishments to make facilities available to polio victims. It would seem that a combination of the different forms of "charity" - true acts of helping individuals, grand philanthropic gestures by the rich and state-level interventions to eradicate the disease and ameliorate its effects - are needed.


Did you just ignore the first essay I referenced? It demonstrated rather conclusively how far Progressive Era philanthropy had departed from the Christian principle of charity. Quite often this departure was advertised and proclaimed as an advancement.

eschews complete solutions

That's a significant phrase there. One of the temptations of the "great statesman" or "great philantrhopist" is to consider (loftily, always) such things as "the poverty problem" or "the social question" as if these issues are, really, one single problem or question and capable of one specific answer or solution, when they are nothing of the sort. Indeed, one of the most common errors is to consider these questions with the perspective that there is a definite body of people who are "the poor" and who are the rightful objects of thoughts about "their problem", whereas a goodly share of the poor are of recent vintage after having been of the not-poor class, and another share of people who have been poor are no longer in that state, and there are still others who transition into and out of the status with some regularity. Not to mention the intensely human difficulty of identifying the boundary conditions between "poor" and "not quite poor but close" and "having most of the basic necessities most of the time but not always" categories.

Daniel, there's an important difference between poverty and sickness. Poverty is not a disease with purely physical causes and manifestations, much less one that could be addressed by chemical means. A man who cannot walk and requires a wheelchair has a very straightforward problem. A child whose father barely remembers his name because he is one of six children by four different mothers has a completely different problem, and some of his wants might manifest themselves as deceptively simple things like, "Johnny has no money for school supplies." The liberal bureaucratic state seeks to effect a "solution" to his disparate problems through various "programs." Real, localized charitable organizations are able to identify concrete instances of lack, assess its relative importance, and take a measure of the needy person's general character.

Grand governmental schemes to alleviate every kind of want are something altogether different, and have very little to do with solving particular problems or, as Paul's post emphasizes, Christian charity rightly understood. That's why they so frequently are bound up with "solutions" to the "problem" of poverty that reduce to schemes to eliminate the poor. Larger philanthropic enterprises, being often exercises in extreme vanity and reputation-burnishing, commonly devolve in the same direction, which is why Bill Gates, Inc. has become one of the largest and most formidable tentacles of the population-control Leviathan.

Tony, the confusion you point up there applies to the rich as well, and this is one of the things that always drives me a little batty when I hear discussions about duties owed by "the rich" in a radically fluid society like ours, and especially the implication that lies behind phrases like "the rich get richer." Understood as a static class of people, like European nobility or Hindu castes, there is no list of people we can identify as "the rich," because most of the people whose net worth qualifies them for that status have spent most of their lives either middle class or poor.

Thanks for the comments, gentlemen.

I particularly liked Schambra's brief illustrations of humble service, mercy and charity in the Catholic fraternities he mentions toward the end of that essay.

It reminded me again of the importance of humility. Anyone who has simply sat with a friend who has lost someone dear can instantly feel the impotence. All that you can do is be there. Grieve with them. It's the patience and love of human presence. Something so simple, which this progressive vision of philanthropy did actually seek to erase, or at least wholly preempt.


The Christian side has its own problems in the form of people who refuse to believe that Jesus was being quite literal when He said that the poor will always be with us. There can be no solution to eradicating poverty because poverty is itself an intrinsic characteristic to a fallen world. So the Christians who put their faith in government programs and private bureaucracies are at best wasting their time, at worst throwing good money at programs that can literally never accomplish what they seek.

There is a similar problem here with government programs and Big Philanthropy that exists between the DEA and the War on Drugs. You have a single organization, rich and powerful, that exists primarily to pursue a single end. It will never voluntarily accomplish its mission in its entirety (opportunity permitting) because doing so would render itself redundant. If you want to make a difference, demand the right to give your tax dollars to local small charities that can easily come and go. Better to give $2k to a local free clinic than Medicaid.

The line about arranging that the beggar shall never be born really does send chills up the spine.

I have long thought that large philanthropic organizations have many of the same problems as governmental hand-out programs. You highlight here the ideological problems. There is also the problem of predictability. Put bluntly, the more charity is streamlined and rendered automatic, the more moral hazard it contains. A large charity that passes out what it gives more or less automatically creates these moral hazards just as does a government program.

This is a hard lesson to teach many well-intentioned people, Christians included--that one reason small charity is better than big, highly organized charity is precisely because it is unpredictable and undependable. When you hear someone say, "Yes, but that doesn't guarantee..." that is the tip-off to a fundamental rift of philosophy in approach to these matters. On the one side are those who are willing to risk the moral hazard in order that what they call the "safety net" shall be a _guarantee_ to give to all who have need, regardless of their other resources, regardless of their intent to misuse the money given (e.g., on drugs or alcohol), regardless of what continued lifestyle one is enabling by the handout. It's the guarantee that is all, because we must err on the side of making sure that, whatever else happens, no one worthy and needy shall go un-helped. On the other side are those who want charity to be small for many reasons, including those Paul has cited (because it is really more loving, because it is more personal, because it involves actually knowing the people involved, because it can be done wisely and without rewarding the fraudulent, the lazy, or the self-abusing) and are willing in the name of that better way of giving to take the risk that even someone who genuinely is worthy and needy will accidentally slip through the cracks. It's a fundamental difference of priorities.

When we did our charity show we had a choice of several charities to donate to. One was a huge national organization. We gave them 1,000 dollars and got no thank you or any news about where the money went because it was less than 10,000 dollars.

The other was a tiny organization in the midwest. They made their goals and projects very clear online, had been around for several years, and seemed to be doing good work. So we gave them 1,000 dollars.

They called me up personally to thank us, sent us all free t-shirts, and sent us a personal thank you letter with a hand-written note.

Guess which group really needed the money more.

Probably the fastest way to get rid of Big Philanthropy would be to streamline the income tax. Bill Clinton proposed a few years ago that we get rid of credits and deductions and cut the rates by about 33%. If that happened, you'd see most of the big charities collapse within a few years because their 501(c) status is their biggest draw with many donors.

Mike, that sounds interesting, but I don't quite follow it. There are indeed a fair number of small charity efforts that are not 501(c)(3) because they don't expect to be around that long and don't apply for the status. Other than that, practically all charities including the little ones get qualified as 501(c)(3), and my impression is that having the status is a HUGE benefit to the little ones, because they don't have a national or state-wide presence so other than the tax-qualified status they have no way to prove they are on the up and up. Take that away and it seems to me that the ones that are so short lived that they NEVER get qualified would still be OK, but all the other little guys would be hard hit.

I did read the essay. I come back to your comment (I assume it was made in a pejorative sense)

Preferring rational bureaucracy, distant, cold, calculating, to the humble warmth of human interaction, the philanthropists set out to do great things for mankind.

the eradication of polio (or smallpox, or other disease) from the planet is indeed a great thing for mankind, however much it might not have resulted from the "humble warmth of human interaction". In that sense the contribution of Mr Gates is not to be wholly slighted (Mr Sorman himself seems to be somewhat uncharitable here), however much he might have desired to do it for personal glory. Also, neither Mr Sorman nor you really know that Mr Gates does what he does for personal glory - it is also likely that the admiration for Mr Gates is just a by-product.

If Gates didn't use his money to support population control efforts worldwide I, for one, would have a good deal less to say against him. Nor is his the only case. Big programs, both government and non-government, seem to gravitate towards eliminating the poor as part of the plan to eliminate poverty.

What I was referring to is the tax deductions that come with their status as non-profits. If that deduction were lost as part of a deal to institute deep reforms, it would cause big charity to collapse. I wasn't advocating an end to 501(c) status, but an end to deductions for charity (as I think all deductions and credits should be eliminated).

the eradication of polio (or smallpox, or other disease) from the planet is indeed a great thing for mankind, however much it might not have resulted from the "humble warmth of human interaction".

The eradication of Polio was also not an act of charity unless you wish to call all public health campaigns acts of charity. There was a legitimate state interest from as much of a simple public order and safety basis as any other motivation to stamp out Polio.

One of the points they're trying to make Dan is that Caritas is really not the motivating public policy argument for these campaigns, welfare, etc. Liberals frequently cite arguments about the good of society rather than the good of the individual. For example, the only argument I hear from liberal family members for a single payer system is how providing maximal coverage to the public at state expense would create a healthy society which is good for our society's function. Oh yeah... and it's also good for the poor... (trying to show you how often the individual good becomes an afterthought)

The bureaucracy does what it does as an institution because that is its legislated duty. Individuals are irrelevant as a talking point because individuals don't override the function and purpose of a large institution with firm goals, methods and legal restraints. At the end of the day, the public health department doesn't mass vaccinate against Polio because it collectively feels charity toward the public. It does it for the same reason any other government entity does its legislated mission: it's their job.

Mike, I agree with some of what you say, but there seems to be some confusion about the public and private interest. The eradication of polio has come about by state-based public health campaigns, WHO initiatives and financial assistance from the Gates Foundation, Rotary International etc.

This is primarily because individual caritas, State interventions or international health campaigns have been shown, in themselves and separately, not sufficient to eradicate disease, although each intervention may ameliorate some aspects.

Probably no one seriously thinks that any of these interventions necessarily cancels out the need for the other; although it might be argued that the elimination of smallpox, polio and leprosy has also eliminated the need for personal charity towards, and the need for, faith-based healing of the blind, lame and lepers. Miraculous healing of these conditions, as minutely documented in the Gospels, were necessary to convince a skeptical public of the truth of Christ's message, not as public heath measures. Personal charity was preached to teach sinning individuals selflessness. State-based public health and welfare programs and philanthropic endowments exist to serve other needs. All are needed in our, or any, Christian commonwealth.

I think part of what I'm taking away here, Dan, that distinguishes between the real, valuable role of philanthropy in dealing with i.e. endemic deadly disease versus poverty is that it's perfectly acceptable to formulate the fight against polio as the elimination of polio. There is no legitimate moral issue in mapping out a plan to destroy every last poliovirus on the face of the earth for the sake of alleviating human suffering.

Unfortunately, what's morally commendable or acceptable in the case of the poliovirus goes badly wrong when we recharacterize charity for the poor as "the elimination of poverty".

There's two prongs to it, in my mind: 1) Poverty is, as we can see from discussions of where the "poverty line" lies in populations in developed countries, a relative thing. Many, but not all, of people below the poverty line in the United States and the UK are getting ~2200 calories a day--something that cannot be said for large populations of people in developing or third-world nations. So "eliminating poverty" is really only a fight to lift everyone out of the very bottom layer of human society, at which point the next-lowest rung is now "poverty". Until and unless we achieve a real post-scarcity society (which science fiction writers are just certain!! we'll do any day now but I suspect won't happen until the Second Coming), it will always exist.

2), as Schambra points out, without any meaningful connection to the people we're trying to lift out of poverty, the fight against it is dreadfully easy to characterize in the same way as the fight against polio: All we need to do is eliminate every person, and every potential person, in a situation of poverty, and it goes away. Since a plan of eugenics to eliminate the poor is often easier to enact than a plan of charitable giving and social restructuring to benefit same, it's no surprise that at one instance in recent history, most philanthropic organizations settled on "eugenics" over "charity".

I don't think that it necessarily follows that philanthropy has no role in the elimination of structural causes of poverty, but whereas the fight against polio is easily defined in scientific terms, it's not particularly clear in any given case of poverty what needs to happen and how to affect effective relief. I think this is from whence the criticisms of individual motives of today's philanthropists stems, since it's really easy to uncritically throw money at a good-sounding cause, reap the public accolades, and not actually do any good for anyone at all due to the distance between the good-sounding cause and the actual changes that need to be enacted to bring about positive change.

Also, hello. Been reading since October, first-time commenter.

That's a very shrewd comment, Pellegri.

Thoughtful response, Pellegri. I agree that everyone can get together behind the fight against polio. About structural poverty (especially providing healthcare for the poor), one has to decide whether this is indeed something that anyone, as an individual, should be involved in at all - or whether one should simply leave the poor to their own devices.

Christ had everything to say about personal charity, and little to nothing about great public works - naturally it would follow that the Church should stay out of issue of supporting or rejecting public policy that does not impact on personal. What really strikes me about Christ's personal charity is that he showered his grace indiscriminately on all sinners who had faith, regardless of whether they were poor or rich, worthy or unworthy, fraudulent or not. He simply asks for a verbal confirmation of faith.

That is also a good point, Dan. While I can (sort of) see arguments for a minimal sort of public safety net as provided by the government for those most in need (which, back when welfare began, was widows and war-orphans, and now is decidedly not due to mission creep), it's true that the Church and individual communities frequently do a lot better at dealing with the poor among their members.

Also, coming back to this after some thought, I think saying "structural causes" of poverty made me sound far more lefty-ish than I'd like. "Root" or "fundamental" causes might be more correct; what I meant was not, for example, the idea of the capitalist system being structurally imbalanced so it results in the presence of the destitute poor. What I had in mind was more, say, familial disintegration due to absent fathers resulting in a multigenerational pattern of poverty, or the relationship between drug abuse and severe poverty. Very few (if any) philanthropists are interested in throwing money at the problem of getting deadbeat dads to marry the mothers of their children--assuming, anyway, there's a problem there that money can be thrown at.

Which may ultimately explain why the problem selection rubric for philanthropies seems to come down to whether or not the problem can be solved by spending money on it.

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