As the new year begins, Americans are gloomy about the state of the nation—since the late summer, the fraction of Americans who say the nation is “on the wrong track” has been rising steadily; the government is in a partial shutdown, the market is down. But there are aspects of our civil life that have always buoyed Americans, including our status as the world’s most generous people.

However, Stanford University political scientist Rob Reich asks us to consider whether philanthropy is yet one more factor contributing to the nation’s ills. He puts that question to us in the title of his new book, Just Giving: Why Philanthropy is Failing Democracy and How It Can Do Better.

Reich argues that the usual cheery view of philanthropy comes from attention to the individual donor who gives generously of time and money. Reich does not disagree that generosity is praiseworthy, but he argues that we must consider the impact of the aggregate of individual charitable giving with reference to our highest political ideals: justice, equality, and liberty.

To assess philanthropy in this way, Reich turns to history and political philosophy, from ancient Athens to John Stuart Mill to John Rawls. In doing so, he helps us to see what fundamental principles are stake in wonky policy debates, such as about education philanthropy and the tax code.

Reich concludes that philanthropy supports the ideal of liberty, especially by supporting a wide various of associations, from garden clubs to PTAs to social reform groups. The diversity of these associations helps to sustain American pluralism, and to ensure that minorities, those with unorthodox views, and outright eccentrics can form their own little communities.

But philanthropy’s importance in supporting the ideal of liberty is outweighed, in Reich’s view, by its undermining of equality. Philanthropy undermines equality, by which Reich means economic equality, by providing tax subsidies to high-income earners but not middle- or low-income earners, and by being directed to elite universities, cultural organizations, and other favorite causes of the wealthy. In this way, philanthropy undermines justice and fails democracy.

To improve this situation, Reich argues that we need to keep the ways philanthropy serves liberty and pluralism while redirecting more giving to organizations that promote equality by serving the poor, thus “domesticating plutocrats to serve rather than subvert democratic aims.” Among his recommendations:

  • Replace the charitable deduction with a small tax credit. Reich proposes a credit worth 25% of donations with a maximum credit of $1,000 (so only the first $4,000 of charitable giving would be tax-advantaged). This would introduce a tax incentive for charitable giving for the overwhelming majority of taxpayers, who do not itemize deductions, and remove the hefty tax benefits for charitable giving enjoyed by very-high-income earners.

  • Encourage, through these modest tax incentives, citizens to support charities of all sorts, so that minorities and those with unorthodox views have some public support for their causes and organizations.

  • Direct the largest donors, and especially private foundations, to undertake small-scale experimentation in policies and programs that address democratically-agreed upon (i.e., government-determined) social priorities. Successful experiments would be brought to scale by business or government.

  • Require foundations spend their endowment to advance “intergenerational justice” after the deaths of the original donors. Reich argues that donors should be allowed to set their foundations’ philanthropic priorities only during their lifetimes. After their deaths, their heirs and foundation trustees should be bound to make grants with “the purpose of reproducing the infrastructure of a civil society able to maintain just institutions.” Only after this requirement has been satisfied may heirs and trustees make grants to advance their own philanthropic priorities. This would treat foundation endowments as a public resource and subordinate donor intent to political claims of justice.

These recommendations follow from Reich’s assumptions—but we should be deeply skeptical of his assumption that we should judge philanthropy by how well it serves justice.

Philanthropy belongs not to the political realm but to civil society, those intermediary institutions between the individual and his or her family and the state. Civil society is where we pursue all kinds of goods in addition to justice, such as faith, truth, beauty, honor, community. Yes, in politics, justice is the highest ideal, and there is no higher praise of a political regime than to say it is a just regime. But we need a realm separate from politics for the pursuit of other goods. If we make justice paramount always, it will crowd out all other goods.

Reich asks whether a $1,000 gift to support a video installation is of equal social worth as a $1,000 gift to a soup kitchen—with the plain implication that the imperative of addressing economic inequalities and political justice make the gift to soup kitchen of greater social worth.

Many Americans would agree; in fact, as Reich notes, perhaps a third of charity is directed to the poor. (Although I wonder how many think they are advancing justice rather than simply being benevolent?) I might choose to support a soup kitchen over an art installation too—but is the art lover wrong to support art? Should not beauty have top place for some donors? Or, at least, is not beauty worthy of charitable support alongside equality and justice?

And, what about faith? Reich rues that about a third of charitable giving goes to religious organizations, “meaning giving…for their facilities, operating costs, and clergy salaries. In this sense, religious groups look less like public charities and more like mutual benefit societies.” Reich seems to suggest that contributions to churches, synagogues and other religious organizations should not be tax-deductible, just as association dues are not tax-deductible—that while soup kitchens may provide social goods worthy of being supported through the tax code, religious organizations do not.

But a pluralism that does not include religious communities is out of step with our society, where religion plays such an important role. Religious organizations are not mere “mutual benefit societies.” They are communities for the worship of the divine and the pursuit of metaphysical goods that their members hold to be higher than justice or any other human good. Religious communities also frequently guide their adherents about charitable practices in ways that are incompatible with Reich’s recommendations: For example, many religious traditions encourage anonymous giving, at odds with Reich’s insistence on transparency in giving.

Reich’s book is thoughtful and serious—and some of his recommendations are compelling (surely low-income earners should be able to make tax-advantaged gifts too). But philanthropy properly has more varied aims than justice, and the pluralism that Reich celebrates can only be fully honored when we allow philanthropists to pursue their own highest ideals.


(If you do not pick up Reich’s book, consider listening to Heath Brown’s New Books in Political Science interview with him.)