Philanthropy: In an opulent age, is giving simply the newest sports car?

How much is philanthropy driven by sympathy, by guilt, or simply in order to feel good about oneself? George Will recently opined on the subject, connecting philanthropic giving with the desire of America’s “very rich” to set themselves apart from the “merely affluent.”

Purchasing things has always been part necessity and part unnecessary. The wealthier a society becomes, the more consumption shifts from the former to the latter, from food and shelter to yachts and second homes. We don’t only buy what we need or enjoy for its own sake, but also status symbols that set us apart from our neighbors. We jostle for position in what Will cites as the “positional economy.”

But with more and more people becoming affluent around the world (at the end of 2006, there were 9.5 million millionaires worldwide) buying the designer handbag just doesn’t carry the same weight, in status, as it used to. “When there are 379 Louis Vuitton and 227 Gucci stores, who cares?”

In an effort to distinguish themselves from the growing upper class, the top of the top may turn from consumption to philanthropy. Will concludes:

“Furthermore, because the merely affluent are diminishing the ability of the very rich to derive pleasure from positional goods, philanthropy might become the final form of positional competition. Perhaps that is why so many colleges and universities are currently conducting multi billion-dollar pledge campaigns. When rising consumption of luxuries produces declining enjoyment of vast wealth, giving it away might be the best revenge.”

P.S. Judging from the vociferous reader response on the Washington Post website, clearly many people have trouble relating to the new affluent America.

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