Book Profile

Philanthropy’s Corruption of Politics, and Vice Versa

“Using tax privileges, matching grants, special restrictions, and unique legal devices, the modern state gives the practice of philanthropy its particular strength and texture,” according to Theodore M. Lechterman. “Which if any of these regulatory strategies can be justified requires careful analysis and evaluation.”


From his perspective as a University of Oxford political philosopher, Theodore M. Lechterman has introduced a richly substantive critique of philanthropy’s anti-democratic nature to the rising number of such critiques from those with other perspectives. “Philanthropy that comes with good intentions, careful strategy, and impressive results,” according to Lechterman in his new The Tyranny of Generosity: Why Philanthropy Corrupts Our Politics and How We Can Fix It, “can often flout and even corrode another crucial value: the value of democracy.”

Lechterman’s depthful and rooted Tyranny of Generosity joins a lengthening bibliography of recent book-length appraisals raising similar questions about the entire philanthropic enterprise, perhaps best marked as beginning in 2018 with Anand Giridharadas’ Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World. and Stanford University political scientist Robert Reich’s Just Giving: Why Philanthropy is Failing Democracy and How It Can Do Better. In fact, The Tyranny of Generosity took shape during a postdoctoral fellowship under Reich’s direction at Stanford.

Most of these assessments have come from liberals and progressives. Many of them have been somewhat harsh, sometimes entertainingly so. “Parting ways with cynical treatments,” by Lechterman’s description, The Tyranny of Generosity “reaffirms that philanthropy does indeed possess considerable virtues,” but faith in its “virtues often blinds us to another problem: that philanthropy as we know it threatens critical foundations of a democratic society. What we frequently fail to see is that philanthropy is too often a form of private power wielded on inequitable terms.”

Reconciliation and Requirements

Reconciling philanthropy and democracy requires the tools of political philosophy, Lechterman believes, and he certainly employs them. He good-naturedly concedes in passing that “some readers may find the argumentation in certain chapters denser and more laborious than they may like.” Well, okay, yes. It’s kind of college-level, in a good way.

He reaches a conclusion that he characterizes, some may think curiously, as “surprising”—“the success of the democratic ideal may actually require certain forms of philanthropy, but making philanthropy safe for democracy also requires radical changes to policy and practice.”

More specifically, “Using tax privileges, matching grants, special restrictions, and unique legal devices, the modern state gives the practice of philanthropy its particular strength and texture,” Lechterman notes. “Which if any of these regulatory strategies can be justified requires careful analysis and evaluation.”

Yes. Yes, they do. The Tyranny of Generosity cerebrally goes about providing such analysis, and whatever laboriousness there might be in going through it with Lechterman is well worth the while. More, including more conservatives and populists, should engage in such an outright or a related exercise. The intellectual exercise in political theory would precede that which seems likely to soon become one in policymaking application.

Official and Associational Proceduralism

Even more specifically, Lechterman explores “official proceduralism” and offers a conceptual complement, “associational proceduralism.” Democracy is often defended on grounds of official proceduralism—risking oversimplification, the process by which it affords equal say, in an egalitarian way, to citizen voters as they grapple with issues before the polity. Philanthropy and democracy would be better reconciled, Lechterman proposes, with development and application of an associational proceduralism.

“Whatever objections there are to unequal opportunities to influence elections” through campaign-finance laws and regulations allowing for the wealthy to purchase an inordinate say in them, according to Lechterman, might “seem to apply even more strongly to unequal opportunities for shaping the background public culture” through nonprofitdom’s laws and regulations permitting philanthropy too large a role. In fact, consciously incentivizing that inordinate role through tax policy.

Lechterman considers various challenges to “extending the scope of political egalitarianism,” seeing them as pointing the way to a possible associational-proceduralist solution that would reconcile philanthropy with democracy.

Modern Conditions

“Associational proceduralism holds that the subject of political equality extends to certain mechanisms that mediate political influence beyond the official processes of elections and administrative decision-making,” as Lechterman describes it. “It accepts that some aspects of the process of public opinion formation remain difficult to comprehend, challenging to control, or morally costly to regulate. …

“The official proceduralist position would be especially compelling,” he continues, “if the landscape of associational life lacked any obvious formal basis: if civil society was composed of fleeting and loosely organized assemblages of people.” But “this is an inaccurate depiction of modern conditions, in which the vast majority of activity within civil society is conducted by formally incorporated and professionally managed organizations,” many of which

endeavor to shape a society’s background political culture, its background political agenda, and its background public political opinion. …

In the contemporary American context, this functional description would apply to a wide swath of the nonprofit sectors, covering ‘public education organizations,’ think tanks, NGOs, and any other 501(c)(3) public charity that engages in a substantial degree of public expression. All of these associations can be seen as representing citizens in a process of public deliberation.

Such groups operate on a society’s political common sense in ways that can be difficult to appreciate. Yet their ultimate influence on citizens’ beliefs can be quite considerable. … In some cases, the success of these efforts lies less in their direct targeting of legislation than in their reshaping of background assumptions in public discourse (when then conditioned official political decisions). What’s more, the emergence of such movements owes less to the spontaneous assemblage of individual citizens than it does to the coordinated efforts of well-funded organizations.

Yes. Seems right.

“But if these associations are sustained by donation, and opportunities to make donations are differentially distributed, we seem to run into a familiar conundrum,” Lechter goes on.

These organizations will be initiated by, or more responsive to, the perspectives of those with the deepest pockets. And those organizations that raise the most funds will enjoy significant advantages in getting their views considered. Under conditions of economic inequality, the free flow of gratuitous transfers to expressive associations distorts equal opportunities to participate in public deliberation much in the same way that the free flow of campaign donations undermines equal opportunities to influence the election of candidates. [Footnotes omitted]

Analysis, Evaluation, and Potential Engagement

Lechtner speaks only for himself, of course, but this description and diagnosis—again, recently offered mostly by progressives—is recognizable to, and being recognized by, an expanding portion of populist conservatism. Those in this school of thought plausibly consider establishment philanthropy’s “deep pockets,” echoing Lechtner’s words, to be inordinately wealthy and progressive. Big Philanthropy’s huge tax-exempt wealth, incentivized by the “modern state’s” “regulatory strategies,” is decidedly “differentially distributed,” “a form of private power wielded on inequitable terms.” These are the “modern conditions.”

Again risking oversimplification, the whole nonprofit structure is basically viewable as a form of ideological redistributionism—here too curiously, to the top, and away from the charity originally intended to benefit from its creation.

That which progressives consider anti-democratic in philanthropy is, could, and should be considered by populists as anti-democratic and, in their worldview, lopsidedly progressive, thus not in the country’s interests, and certainly not interests to the incentivization of which they should be conscripted to contribute through the tax system.

That should all be something of an incentive itself for conservatives to seriously pay attention to and maybe genuinely engage with Lechtner’s or at least Lechtner-like analysis and evaluation. They should probably all have a Lite or Lite-like beer or something together, in fact, shouldn’t they? Could be at or near a good college bar, if that’s helpful. (It’d be both laborious and liquid.)

The agenda of particular potential prescriptions, in policy and practice, to consider would and should be quite long; be sure to throw in, oh, expansion of the charitable tax deduction, the role of donor-advised funds, and “participatory philanthropy,” among many other items.

Lechtner floats an idea in The Tyranny of Generosity, interestingly enough, that might also sound somewhat familiar—a “progressive voucher scheme” that would equalize opportunities for “expressive philanthropy” and satisfy “the demands of political equality without imposing intolerable limits on liberty or efficiency.” Historically, of course, vouchers are something of a policy “cure” to which conservatives and libertarians have usually been receptive in other contexts, including education and charity, given their equalizing empowerment of individual over collective decisionmaking. Another round.

Michael E. Hartmann

Michael E. Hartmann is CRC’s senior fellow and director of the Center for Strategic Giving, providing analysis of and commentary about philanthropy and giving. He…
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