"The Givers" – should we criticize generosity?

Americans are exceptionally generous and more likely that people in most other places to volunteer. This is something foreigners noticed since the time of Alexis de Tocqueville. It is the special ingredient that allows us to do with less government. The civil society in the USA often takes on tasks left to government elsewhere.

I just finished The Givers: Money, Power & Philanthropy in the New Gilded Age. It was a very thought-provoking book, maybe because I thought a lot about the subject recently as part of my gentleman of leisure job description but also for my whole FS career. Discussion of volunteerism was part of my lecture repertoire. We sponsored speakers and visitor tours on the subject.

The author David Callahan clearly does not share my general cultural/political outlook, but his approach is complete, reasoned and reasonably balanced. I highly recommend it. When reading such a well-reasoned approach that came to different conclusions, I wondered about some of the causes.

All good societies have three components
Let me first state an assumption that I believe, and I think the author would too. All good societies are based on interaction among government, free market enterprise and a strong civil society. The weight of each varies over time and among countries, but I cannot think of a single successful society w/o a reasonably efficient government, a robust market and a vibrant civil society.

One of his themes is that government is underfunded and that many things now done by philanthropy should be done by government. His justification is that government is democratically elected and so represents the will of the people. So far, so good. But I think that he misses two points. First is the problem of agency and second is definition of will of the people.

Problem of agency
The problem of agency is straightforward. The people do not directly run government. They elect politicians who have come through a process that most people do not understand. These politicians do not run the government either. They create systems that appoint leaders of the parts of the government. These leaders also do not run the government. They work with professional employees. All of this is influenced by particular interests and each of the parts (officials, appointees, employees) has their own preferences and interests that may not coincide with those who elected them.

Who are “the people?”
The issue of “will of the people” is a bit more nuanced. We learn in grade school, at least I did, to view the will of the people in strictly political terms. But it is much more than that. A good government gives the people scope to express their will in non-political ways too. There is no such thing at THE people. There is a ever changing mosaic of individuals, whose preferences (will) is never set.

The problem with politically expressed will of the people is that it is usually binary. Somebody wins, and somebody must lose. A plurality (not necessarily even a majority) can vote its will leaving others with nothing. The others left out may be a large number, maybe even a majority. The will of the people expressed in non-political ways can be much more diverse. If I like Coke but you like Pepsi, we can both be accommodated, and we can include the Doctor Pepper drinkers and even those who favor Seven-Up. Nobody needs lose.

Diverse & pluralistic better than one size fits all
Returning to the book’s idea, the author worries that unelected philanthropists are taking the initiative from elected officials. This troubles the author. It does not trouble me. In fact, I think it is likely good for democracy, since it is more diverse and more pluralistic. I share the concern that a few very rich guys can unduly influence government policy, but that circles around to the problem of government.

Democracy more than elections
There is a whole cultural and political ecosystem in any good democracy. A just democracy requires much more than elections. Our Constitution wisely limited the scope of democracy by ensuring both majority rule and minority rights, separation of powers, and then further dispersing power into state and local jurisdictions.  Much of this was not and was not meant to be democratic.  They were designed as stabilizers. The Founders studied history and found that democracies tended to be very short lived, debouching into chaos of tyranny due to instability. They did not specifically mention civil society, but they clearly just assumed its presence and protected it by limiting the scope of government.

Skin in the game
So, let’s think about the scope of philanthropy. When people make decisions individually or in voluntary groups, they are expressing the will of the people as relates to the things they care enough about to invest their own time and money. These decisions are made collectively but decentralized and distributed. People can have a plurality of preferences. They need not choose the one and fight over which one that will be, as would be with collective political decisions. Most decisions should be left out of the political arena, not in spite of democracy but for the sake of a just democracy.

Patrons have long supported the arts
The author worries about the arts and that funding for the arts will be the scope of private patrons. I immediately thought about the history of arts and literature. Art was usually done by private patrons. But almost before I could make my mental counter argument, the author addressed it. He talked about the Medici and the great art of the renaissance. I respect that he addressed it, but I remained unconvinced of the problem. I would go back to the problem of agency.

If government is the primary patron of the arts, decisions are not made by the people by rather by bureaucrats. I don’t have a problem with most art funding coming from private donors. Leonardo, Michelangelo & Mozart might have preferred to get government grants, but they did great work w/o them.

I know artists tend to bridle when I say this, but the artist is not the only one who makes the art or should decide what to make.  A good editor can make a great author and a discerning patron can improve art.  And the tension between patron and artist may be useful.  We have documented evident of Michelangelo’s conflicts with various patrons. He did not produce what he wanted to do w/o them. Maybe it was not as good, but maybe better.  An artist who just satisfies himself with his own expression may be speaking only to himself.

His last big concern was “accountability.” Big donors are accountable to nobody. I thought about what it means to be accountable. Maybe accountability is not a great thing. Accountability implies that someone judges and may substitute his judgement for ours. It also implies that we know “the good.” Accountably is great for accountants and most places where procedures are clear, and results agreed. In a dynamic and creative environment, the innovators cannot be accountable based on the former criteria or on the judgement of the established experts.

Donors are accountable to the dynamics of the system and to the marketplace of ideas. They need not and should not be accountable to any “authority”, except in the sense of obeying general laws.

Anyway, I enjoyed the book. I listened to the audiobook as I drove down to the farms and back and as I walked around with my I-pod. I found the author very thoughtful and though provoking, as I wrote above. I have not included all, or even most of what he said. Buy the book. It is worth it.