Defending Philanthropy Against Democracy

Cross-posted from my per­sonal blog.

Defend­ing Philan­thropy Against Democracy

Scott Alexan­der has a good post on why he does not find crit­i­cisms of mega-philan­thropy con­vinc­ing. This post adds some ad­di­tional ar­gu­ments for that po­si­tion. I sug­gest read­ers read Alexan­der’s post first, since I largely agree with it and will as­sume read­ers have read it.

The Democ­racy Crit­i­cism of Philanthropy

A crit­i­cism of mega-philan­thropy is that it’s anti-demo­cratic. This ex­cerpt from Anand Girid­haradas’s book Win­ners Take All is per­haps rep­re­sen­ta­tive:

When a so­ciety helps peo­ple through its shared demo­cratic in­sti­tu­tions [as op­posed to pri­vate char­i­ta­ble foun­da­tions], it does so on be­half of all, and in a con­text of equal­ity. Those in­sti­tu­tions, rep­re­sent­ing free and equal cit­i­zens, are mak­ing a col­lec­tive choice of whom to help and how. Those who re­ceive help are not only ob­jects of the trans­ac­tion, but also sub­jects of it—cit­i­zens with agency. When help is moved into the pri­vate sphere, no mat­ter how effi­cient we are told it is, the con­text of the helping is a re­la­tion­ship of in­equal­ity: the giver and the taker, the helper and the helped, the donor and the re­cip­i­ent.

I do not find this crit­i­cism com­pel­ling for sev­eral rea­sons.

Fram­ing: Two Rea­sons Democ­racy Might be Valuable

I start from the pre­sump­tion that there are two rea­sons “demo­cratic con­trol” of any given re­source might be good: (1) be­cause democ­racy is pro­ce­du­rally valuable (i.e., the fact that a de­ci­sion was made demo­crat­i­cally gives it moral value), and (2) be­cause democ­racy is in­stru­men­tally sub­stan­tively valuable (i.e., it tends to pro­duce sub­stan­tively good re­sults).

The sec­ond point—sub­stan­tive le­gi­t­i­macy—is es­sen­tially an em­piri­cal ques­tion: Do re­sources dis­posed of through pri­vate philan­thropy, all things con­sid­ered, do more good than re­sources spent via demo­cratic con­trol? The em­piri­cal ques­tion is well worth de­bat­ing, but in my view it is both less in­ter­est­ing and less cen­tral to ex­ist­ing dis­cus­sions than the pro­ce­du­ral ques­tion. So, for the rest of this post, I fo­cus on the pro­ce­du­ral ques­tion: Is pri­vate philan­thropy pro­ce­du­rally ob­jec­tion­able? I ar­gue that in most cases it is not.

Why Height­ened Scrutiny of Philan­thropy?

A key premise of this de­bate is that philan­thropic dis­posal of re­sources needs to be jus­tified in a demo­cratic so­ciety. In­so­far as any ac­tion needs to be eth­i­cally jus­tified, this is triv­ially true. But I think most crit­ics have a more de­mand­ing stan­dard in mind than this. Con­sider Rob Re­ich’s re­marks in Vox:

Big philan­thropy — more than or­di­nary small dona­tions that most peo­ple make — is an ex­er­cise of power. It’s an at­tempt to di­rect your pri­vate as­sets for some pub­lic in­fluence, of­ten with a naked as­pira­tion to change pub­lic policy. And in a demo­cratic set­ting, wher­ever power is ex­erted, it de­serves our scrutiny, in or­der to un­der­stand whether it’s serv­ing demo­cratic pur­poses or un­der­min­ing them. And philan­thropy shouldn’t be ex­empt from that ex­am­i­na­tion.

The un­der­lined as­ser­tion de­serves more scrutiny. Any de­ci­sion is an ex­er­tion of power: speci­fi­cally, the power to make the ac­tual de­ci­sion made in­stead of some other de­ci­sion. When­ever one spends money (to take the clear­est case), one ex­er­cises power in­so­far as one di­rects that money to one of many pos­si­ble ends, ei­ther philan­thropic (give the money to GiveWell), “demo­cratic” (give the money to the United States gov­ern­ment, whose bud­get is sup­pos­edly de­ter­mined demo­crat­i­cally), or self­ish (spend the money on candy).

To be clear, I agree that these are morally weighty de­ci­sions. I am not con­vinced, how­ever, that (from a pub­lic policy stand­point) philan­thropic dis­po­si­tions ought to be sub­ject to greater moral scrutiny than self­ish dis­po­si­tions. Such added scrutiny seems to per­versely dis­in­cen­tivize al­tru­is­tic dis­po­si­tions.

In a liberal so­ciety, we typ­i­cally pre­sume that gov­ern­ment scrutiny of cer­tain de­ci­sions is sus­pect. If I de­cide to spend my next $10 on a book rather than donat­ing it to GiveWell, we do not typ­i­cally pre­sume that that de­ci­sion needs to be demo­crat­i­cally rat­ified, even though it is an “ex­er­cise of power.” In­so­far as liber­al­ism is a stan­dard start­ing as­sump­tion for our dis­course, I think philan­thropy crit­ics have failed to ar­gue why philan­thropic de­ci­sions de­serve greater scrutiny than other pri­vate de­ci­sions of similar mag­ni­tude, such as how much money to spend on var­i­ous per­sonal goods.

Demo­cratic Rat­ifi­ca­tion of Philanthropy

In re­sponse, a critic might ar­gue that the prob­lem is not the philan­thropy per se, but the sub­si­diza­tion of it. But this point de­ci­sively un­der­mines the democ­racy crit­i­cism: the le­gal sub­si­diza­tion of philan­thropy (by tax de­duc­tions and ex­emp­tions) was as demo­cratic a de­ci­sion as any in Amer­ica. Thus, in a very real sense, Amer­i­cans have demo­crat­i­cally rat­ified (and in­cen­tivized!) the pri­vate philan­thropy sta­tus quo.

Of course, one could (and maybe should) ar­gue the cur­rent char­ity law sys­tem is flawed. But note that this is no longer a pro­ce­du­ral crit­i­cism: it is a crit­i­cism of the sub­stan­tive mer­its of a sys­tem de­signed by demo­cratic forces. Our democ­racy could re­fuse to in­cen­tivize or even dis­al­low philan­thropy, but it has re­fused to do so. In­stead, we have de­cided to in­cen­tivize it.

One could ar­gue that the de­ci­sion pro­ce­dure for ar­riv­ing at those in­cen­tives was flawed. Per­haps. But if so, this un­der­mines the sup­posed le­gi­t­i­macy of us­ing that pro­cess to con­trol philan­thropic re­sources in­stead.

The critic could also ar­gue that the prob­lem is the “white­wash­ing” effect of philan­thropy. Like Alexan­der, I am not con­vinced that this is a real phe­nomenon, but even if it was, I don’t think the crit­i­cism holds. A democ­racy should be able to weigh the pros of philan­thropy (solu­tion of mar­ket and policy failures) against cons it might have (white­wash­ing a bad or un­equal eco­nomic sys­tem). If the democ­racy de­cides that the pros out­weighs the cons, that calcu­lus de­serves re­spect. Through the var­i­ous policy sub­sidies of philan­thropy, our democ­racy ap­pears to have ar­rived at such a de­ci­sion. Again, that might be a sub­stan­tively bad de­ci­sion, but it is not an anti-demo­cratic one. And if the de­ci­sion to sub­si­dize philan­thropy was sub­stan­tively flawed, one won­ders why we should ex­pect bet­ter dis­po­si­tion of money that would have oth­er­wise gone to philan­thropy.

Amer­i­can Democ­racy is not “Democ­racy”

I find that in this dis­cus­sion there is a very un­com­fortable eli­sion be­tween “democ­racy” as an ab­stract virtue and “democ­racy” in prac­tice, by which crit­ics usu­ally mean the Amer­i­can gov­ern­ment.

To see why I find this ob­jec­tion­able, sup­pose I del­e­gated my dona­tion de­ci­sions to a de­mos of three: Jeff Be­zos, Bill Gates, and War­ren Buffet. Some­one would rightly ob­ject that this is not a demo­cratic pro­ce­dure, since the de­mos is small and also ex­traor­di­nar­ily un­rep­re­sen­ta­tive of all Amer­i­cans. Of course, I could and per­haps should ex­pand my de­mos. But where is the proper stop­ping point? When does the rele­vant de­mos be­come large enough to call the de­ci­sion reached by them “demo­cratic”?

Crit­ics ap­pear to be­lieve that the an­swer is roughly, “once the de­mos in­cludes all el­i­gible vot­ers in Amer­ica.” But note that this is not an ob­vi­ous stop­ping point, since the set of moral pa­tients in­cludes at least all peo­ple in the world. Thus, al­lo­ca­tion by the United States gov­ern­ment is only more demo­cratic than my de­mos-of-three as a mat­ter of de­gree, not kind.

Fur­ther­more, like my de­mos-of-three, Amer­i­cans are dis­pro­por­tionately wealthy and pow­er­ful. They also, un­sur­pris­ingly, tend to fa­vor them­selves, al­lo­cat­ing only about 1.2% of our gov­ern­men­tal spend­ing to­wards for­eign aid. Thus, gov­ern­men­tal con­trol of would-be philan­thropic re­sources would still fa­vor the rel­a­tively rich and pow­er­ful.

The critic might re­spond, “yes, but surely con­trol by a big­ger de­mos is bet­ter than con­trol by a smaller one. Sadly, no global democ­racy yet ex­ists, so maybe the Amer­i­can democ­racy is the best available.” How­ever, the In­dian, not Amer­i­can, gov­ern­ment has the largest de­mos of any ex­ist­ing democ­racy. Cu­ri­ously, forcibly redi­rect­ing philan­thropy dol­lars from Amer­i­can char­i­ties to the In­dian gov­ern­ment is not a top pri­or­ity of philan­thropy crit­ics.

More se­ri­ously: in the ab­sence of a global democ­racy, I think the right thing to do is not “del­e­gate to the biggest democ­racy you can.” In­stead, the best philan­thropists try to iden­tify the ways to do the most good while af­ford­ing all moral pa­tients equal weight in a demo­cratic spirit.

Of course, many philan­thropists are ei­ther neg­li­gently or in­ten­tion­ally not so demo­cratic in spirit. This is a le­gi­t­i­mate ob­jec­tion to raise to philan­thropy, but the philan­thropy critic would still need to show that mov­ing re­sources from pri­vate philan­thropy to Amer­i­can gov­ern­ments (or what­ever the coun­ter­fac­tual is) would be bet­ter as eval­u­ated from the view­point of all moral pa­tients. I sus­pect that this is not the case, but in any case it is not an ar­gu­ment I’ve seen made. In the ab­sence of such a show­ing, I do not think it is le­gi­t­i­mate for them to act as tough US gov­ern­men­tal con­trol of re­sources is un­qual­ifiedly “demo­cratic” as com­pared to philan­thropy.