Considering the principle of “subsidiarity” as a way to untangle the complex relationship between philanthropy, power, and justice.
The 2018 blockbuster Marvel movie Black Panther begins and ends in an impoverished neighborhood in Oakland, California. The choice of location is important: Oakland is the birthplace of the original Black Panther Party (founded in 1966), and it’s also the birthplace of the movie’s director Ryan Coogler.
In the final scenes of the movie, the protagonist King T'Challa gives a speech at the UN detailing the plans that the fictional country Wakanda has to invest its rich resources to help better the world. T'Challa then creates a state-of-the-art community center in Oakland, focused on providing STEM opportunities to Oakland’s youth. In my own review of the movie, I argued that this ending “suggests another form of black power: namely, combatting white-driven gentrification by investing black resources in black communities.”
This investment, of course, would be a form of philanthropy.
We don’t tend to talk about philanthropy as power. Proponents of “dark money” theories might suggest that this is because the powerful are at their most powerful when they operate in the shadows. Perhaps a less cynical and more realistic reason is that talking about money is taboo, and it becomes awkward and uncomfortable when we point out power disparities that result from wealth inequality.
In his book Just Giving, political scientist Rob Reich wades into the uncomfortable, asking us to talk honestly about philanthropy as power. He writes early in the book that “big philanthropy is often an unaccountable, non-transparent, donor-directed, and perpetual exercise of power,” an exercise that “fits uneasily, at best, in democratic societies.” Imagine a bundle of dollars on a journey to the IRS: this bundle is headed toward a group of democratically-elected and accountable officials who will assign this money to various public goods like maintaining public parks. Then, all of the sudden, this bundle is redirected into a tax-deductible gift to an ideological DC thinktank with outsized influence advocating for a specific political agenda—say, lowering corporate tax rates or amending immigration laws. These goals—funded by dollars otherwise intended for use by publicly-elected officials—may not be your goals, may not support your community. That’s because, of course, you don’t elect the DC thinktank leadership.
In Jacqueline Pfeiffer Merrill’s intriguing review of Just Giving, she argues that we should be skeptical of the view that philanthropy should be judged solely on the basis of how well it serves justice. She writes that “philanthropy belongs not to the political realm but to civil society” and in civil society we find all sorts of goods such as beauty alongside justice. She thus argues that “if we make justice paramount always, it will crowd out all other goods.”
I’m sympathetic to this argument, particularly because she writes to defend the legitimacy of the tax-deductible gift to the art museum against those who would say “but shouldn’t you have given this money to a soup kitchen instead?” If we focus too much on government-directed philanthropy as a means to utilitarian ends in the realm of material aid, we can forget that beauty is a public good, needed for well-rounded persons in civil society. Moreover, government technocrats don’t always know what is best for local communities, and a philanthropy that is less regulated can be more responsive to the on-the-ground needs of communities—an argument Robert Reich also makes in advocating for pluralism.
However, recall my earlier point that philanthropy is a form of exercising power. With that in mind, how does Merrill’s argument strike us if we replace “philanthropy” with “power” in her argument? Power does not belong to the political realm but to civil society and because civil society includes other goods besides justice, we shouldn’t focus exclusively or perhaps even primarily on whether we are applying power in ways that promote justice. The philanthropist’s job is to pursue genuine goods; insofar as she is pursuing goods, the use of power is legitimate.
This exercise should lead us to reconsider how we understand philanthropy. If we understand philanthropy as an exercise in power, we can then consider the morality of philanthropy under the aegis of the relationship between justice and power. And such a consideration might make us more critical of undemocratic paths taken on the journey toward genuine goods.
The Catholic principle of subsidiarity stands out as a starting point for thinking through this relationship. Subsidiarity argues that governmental power is best deployed when it is scaled appropriately and is subservient to the needs of communities rather than communities being steamrolled by the government. Along the same lines, we might also say that philanthropy is best deployed when it is proportionally scaled. This would mean that, rather than wealthy donors or foundations ruling over communities, communities would be empowered to achieve their own goals for pursuing goods through philanthropic support from private-sector generosity.
This vision of subsidiarity-based philanthropy can work even when the donors are extremely wealthy. For example, Disney donated $1 million of its profits from the Black Panther movie to help fund STEM education through the Boys & Girls Clubs of America nonprofit. In other words, a multinational corporation gave monetary resources to support a national nonprofit with regional organization that works locally to provide education programming within specific communities. This is an instance of well-deployed power.
Philanthropy is a form of power—and that means, inevitably—that the ultra-wealthy are ultra-powerful. But that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. In one of his best speeches, Martin Luther King, Jr. said “power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic.” The question I am left with is this: how can we structure our philanthropy in such a way that love and power are joined together as we help our communities to develop equally and equitably?