Does philanthropy propagate an unjust system?

A week ago, Peter Buffett—the son of business magnate Warren Buffett—published an op-ed in The New York Times on what he called “the charitable-industrial complex.” His central thesis was that modern-day philanthropy is a form of “conscience laundering”: by engaging in large public acts of giving, the rich “sleep better at night” while keeping “the existing structure of inequality in place.” In a word, the new mega-philanthropists are giving with one hand but taking with the other.

In my latest Quartz article, I argue against this position (also defended by the pop philosopher Slavoj Žižek). While it is true that, in a few cases, a claim along those lines could be plausibly defended, it is by no means the rule. Take Bill Gates. The foundation that he and his wife preside has saved an estimated five million lives. Has Gates amassed his fortune by doing the moral equivalent of causing the deaths of that many people? This would have to be the case if Buffett’s thesis were true.

This is not to deny, of course, that there are many policy changes that would benefit the global poor immensely. But Buffett stays at the level of generalities, instead of discussing specific proposals. I’ll try to write up soon what I think the best interpretation of the “supporting the system” objection against philanthropy is. But, for now, what do you think?

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2 Responses to Does philanthropy propagate an unjust system?

  • Kent Pitman says:

    I take this to be mostly a question about charity of large dollars done by a small number of people, not about the large number of $10 and $20 donations that some organizations get. I doubt anyone will say anything negative about those many small donations as they are quite democratic and certainly not buying off anyone’s conscience.

    I think the analysis offered doesn’t really address the full complexity of this space. In my mind the fundamental injustice of the existing system is the notion that single individuals has so much power. I might make an analogy to the difference between a dictatorship and a democracy. Large concentrations of wealth amount to a kind of dictated result. The question isn’t just “does this do good?” but “what opportunity is left on the table by doing this?” Maybe there was a way to do something that would affect more lives, or correct more injustices. We evaluate this as a binary thing: are we glad we did it? But really something would have been done with the money, so the question is “was this the right thing?”

    It’s also wealth that was taken from one part of the world and given to another. From an ethics standpoint, that might be good or not, but it seems unlikely that it could be deemed definitively right simply because someone who knows how to make computers really well thinks it’s the right thing. That’s arbitrary in the extreme, but arbitrary is not the same as random, so one can’t even argue that a bunch of arbitrary choices will all average out.

    Finally, philanthropy reinforces a notion that the government doesn’t have to care because private causes will pick up the slack. But the government makes decisions based on input from a large body of people and with responsibility to those people, while philanthropy makes the kind of arbitrary decisions I made above. So although the two appear to cover the same kinds of things, just from different sources, that’s only when you look at things from a distance. When viewed close up, organizations live and die on the difference between these two.

    It is true, though, as a minor afterthought, that sometimes the political divide means something that deserves funding (because it enjoys a substantial support from a subset of the population) can get stalled in political circles and private philanthropy can cover such gaps. That’s a slightly different matter, and I think it works especially well when things like that are supported from many small donors, not one or two big donors. And I think it would even be needed if we just disallowed people from saying “not with my tax dollars” unless he people uttering the words were literally paying all the taxes. Paying only a small amount of tax but retaining veto power over all tax dollars is a kind of fussing we allow people to do, but I don’t understand why.

  • Owen Schaefer says:

    I agree that Peter Buffett’s arguments, such as they are, are too vague to be persuasive or compelling. Still, you glossed over his more cogent and appealing final thoughts – we need more research on the effect/feasibility of radical, systemic change. This is in contrast to research into the effectiveness of various aid programs or individual federal policies, which he rightly points out don’t get to the real root of various problems. Perhaps we need more rigorous studies on, say, the viability of anarcho-syndicalism or true libertarianism. If any of these alternatives proves really workable, the next step may well be to financially support radical political parties agitating for the best political alternative.

    However, I suspect Buffett is not so radical as Zizek on this regard. Buffett’s NoVo Foundation is involved in decidedly less radical and more mainstream philanthropic programs such as girls’ education and local economic investment. Maybe Buffett has something else entirely planned for the future, but for now it seems his rhetoric doesn’t match is efforts.


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