The topic of charity as a distraction is really gaining ground. In the last week I stumbled upon 2 articles on the topic, both making powerful arguments against private charity.
First is the article in LA Times that gives trenchant observations about the failure of private charity to attend to social needs, summarized in two main points:
1. Private charity is as cyclical as the economy. It can’t step up precisely when it is needed the most – in times of economic collapse;
2. Charity is not synonymous with helping the needy. Most charitable donation go towards religious institutions, alma maters and other personal pet projects.
To quote Robert Reich, former Labor Secretary, “Philanthropy appears to be more about the pursuit of one’s own projects, a mechanism for the expression of one’s values or preferences other than a mechanism for redistribution or relief for the poor.”
I guess that explains why we have Koch theater at the Lincoln Center, but not in the projects.
Second article is Mike Konczal’s long read. It aims to strike at the conservative myth of charity as a functional replacement of government programs. He calls it “voluntarism fantasy.”
At a basic level, much of our elite charitable giving is about status signaling, especially in donations to elite cultural and educational institutions. And much of it is also about political mobilization to pursue objectives favorable to rich elites. As the judge Richard Posner once wrote, a charitable foundation “is a completely irresponsible institution, answerable to nobody” that closely resembles a hereditary monarchy. Why would we put our entire society’s ability to manage the deadly risks we face in the hands of such a creature?
He also makes a case for liberals to reclaim the definition of charity as, to use President Truman’s words, “good will towards one’s fellow man; of brotherhood, of mutual help, of love.” The idea is that true charity is not a whimsical giveaway from rich to the poor, but a common participation from all members of the community. This way it won’t be easy for people like Paul Ryan casually throw “charity” as a panacea and retreat back into his ideological niche, thinking that the problem of poverty is in no need of further attention.