The New York Times' David Brooks recently wrote about the “Giving Pledge,” where billionaires discuss their philanthropic activities and reasons for doing so. The idea, a brainchild of the “many great conversations” between Gates and Buffett was a way of “setting a new standard of generosity among the ultra-wealthy.” In discussing charity, it is probably best not to be uncharitable with one’s interpretations, but it is hard not to see the Giving Pledge website as a combination of self-congratulating, shaming, willful self-ignorance, and self-importance. Which is to say, there is a lot of focus on themselves.  (And it reminds one of the Biblical injunction “not to let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret.”)

In any case, the pledgers are assured their philanthropy is “making the world a better place.” How do they know? The website asks “how do you measure impact?” and gives the non-response: “We now have 169 pledgers from 21 different countries…. Philanthropy can be bold, take important risks, and incubate new ideas. It can also partner effectively with government to scale up innovations for maximum impact.” I’m glad that’s cleared up.

Brooks, with his typical earnestness, reads the letters written by the pledgers in his ongoing effort to link action to “meaning.” Sometimes this can result in very pointed and personal forms of philanthropy (such as in the case of Dan Gilbert), and in other instances more ideological forms (Sara Blakely). Perusing the letters leads Brooks to reflect on what he would do with a billion dollars. Readers of Brooks are familiar with his skimming of social science data, his interest in character development, his tenuous grasp of communal life, and his obsession with generating meaning. All these concerns come together in his desire to create “collectives around the country” organized by age cohort.

“A collective would be a group of people who meet once a week to share and discuss life. Members of these chosen families would go on retreats and celebrate life events together.”

The collectives arise out of the belief that “only loving relationships transform lives, and such relationships can only be found in small groups.” These small groups would “hit the four pressure points” of hearts, hands, head, and soul in such a way that people would become connected and live with a sense of deep purpose.

Brooks often gestures in the right direction in terms of diagnosing the problem – in this case, fragmentation, rootlessness, and absence of teleology – but often gets the causes wrong, and thus offers “solutions” that run from superfluous to counterproductive.

Take, for example, the idea of forming “collectives” that teach people how to serve one another, how to love one another, how to nurture relationships, how to think about the world, and how to understand ultimate questions of human destiny. There are actually two “collectives” already engaged in these projects: they are called “families” and “churches” (if they are done correctly).

These two institutions have some advantages that far transcend the value of the “collectives” that Brooks promotes. First, they are organic relationships. As such, they partake of nature’s intrinsic teleology (those who argue the church is not a natural relationship don’t understand the meaning of church). Second, they operate on the principle of and out of love. They form deep and sustainable communities – ones that don’t require constant funding from a billionaire – that orient a person toward the givenness of the world and an understanding of their place within it. They don’t establish themselves “to help members come up with their own life philosophies,” an instance where Brooks’ cure resembles the disease: the hyper-individualism of American life that mollifies itself with voluntary forms of association, for in democratic life only that which is chosen can have moral purchase.

Brooks’ collectives strike me as positively boring. Not for him is the rough-and-tumble of family life, of long-established neighborhoods with their grudges and feuds, of local communities constantly coming together and falling apart, but who can weather these moments because they are stabilized by people who stick in them. Not for him is the wonderful and tenuous emergence of friendship out of propinquity. In Brooks’s collectives people largely … talk, and they talk mostly about themselves. And why would anyone join this collective? Would they do so because they see it as an answer to their own questions about their desperate lives, or because they have been financially incentivized to do so by a billionaire who, like the others pledgers, engages in philanthropic activity resulting from a personal crisis?

Brooks pays most attention to the letter of George B. Kaiser whose philanthropic activity is motivated mostly by guilt. It’s hard not to see guilt playing a role in Brooks’s own musings. One source of such guilt, for anyone sufficiently self-reflective, would be the conditions under which such wealth is generated. In a telling concluding sentence, Brooks says “Now all I need is a hedge fund to get started.” I need not go here into the deeper economic forces and systems at work that increase income inequality and worker vulnerability and have eviscerated genuine local communities in the form of towns and villages (and destroyed families), or the role of hedge funds in distorting economic activity, but those who profit in such a system better feel some guilt). My guess is that no amount of philanthropizing can ever clean such hands.

Photo credit: American Council on Education via / CC BY-NC