Under the editorship of Jonathan Imber, the most recent issue of SOCIETY magazine features a symposium titled “The Politics of Philanthrocapitalism.”
One of the most interesting contributions comes from David Bosworth, a cultural critic at the University of Washington. By focusing on the “royal status” of Bill Gates, his piece, “The Cultural Contradictions of Philanthrocapitalism,” brings into question just about every philanthrocapitalist piety there is. In particular, Bosworth challenges the assumption that we are necessarily well served by persons of immense wealth exerting so much influence on public policy by throwing around their immense philanthropic weight.
The current leveraged takeover of public education by the moneyed few, as endorsed and enforced by first Bush’s and now Obama’s federal bureaucracy, brings us a very long way from G.K. Chesterton’s claim that “the democratic faith is this: that the most terribly important things must be left to ordinary men themselves.” We should not delude ourselves that the competence of the plutocrat warrants this surrender of our ordinary authority. On the subject of education, Bill Gates is not even close to being the smartest-man-in-the-room; he is merely the wealthiest and the most willful — someone far more adept at monopolizing power than creating social value.
Although I would quarrel with some of Bosworth’s own assumptions about the cause of educational decline, and perhaps about whether big, impersonal, bureaucratic philanthropy represents more of (or as large as) a threat to the common weal than big, impersonal, bureaucratic government, Bosworth’s is a provocative critique well worth reading. The rising philanthrocapitalist ideal surely calls out for careful ethical and moral analysis.