A recent editorial in the New York Times by David Callahan highlights the growing unease with our philanthropically-minded techno-aristocracy. Callahan—a progressive writer, researcher, and policy wonk—has written a book on this new ruling class, but the Times editorial offers a compressed form of the argument.
Callahan’s most interesting point pertains to the invisible transfer of power underway between Big Brother and Big Philanthropy. As governments continue to asphyxiate under the self-imposed constraints of austerity, the philanthropic elite will increasingly opt to fill the void. (The city of Flint’s ongoing drama surrounding unsafe drinking water provides a vivid case in point: After municipal budgets proved insufficient to the task of addressing the crisis, private philanthropies raised some $125 million towards the effort.)
Indeed, by Callahan’s estimate, “over $20 trillion is likely to find its way to philanthropy in the next half century.”
Besides offering up the public praise that such giving obviously deserves, Callahan’s task is to sound an early alarm over the lack of transparency and accountability that ultimately marks these efforts. He cites numerous relevant episodes—Zuckerberg’s controversial education reform in New Jersey, park renovations in New York, and an aerial surveillance program Baltimore—which all serve to highlight that, “When things go wrong with big philanthropy, citizens have little recourse. The givers are accountable to no one.”
That’s not quite true, of course. The givers derive their wealth and their influence from consumers that buy their products and citizens that honor their status. As such, there are still mechanisms of control and censure that a responsible society can exercise over its donor class. Instead of these mechanisms revolving around elections, however, they rather center on purchasing choices and socio-cultural validation. The very public downfall of Uber CEO Travis Kalanick illustrates this point: We can still strip the techno-elite of their power (if not exactly their wealth) through recourse to ‘soft’ strategies like boycotts, awareness campaigns, and good old-fashioned public outcry.
Which makes Callahan’s actual suggestions for curbing the influence of the new techno-elite all the more anticlimactic. He runs through a brief list of rather conventional policy prescriptions such as strengthening sunshine laws (especially regarding donor-advised funds) and imposing stricter limits on tax-deductible giving (or, further, shrinking the number of nonprofits that qualify for tax-deductible gifts in the first place).
But these ideas beg the question at hand. If government is the very institution whose current crisis of legitimacy invites the encroachments of Big Philanthropy, how will government alone impose the necessary restraints upon the new techno-elite? The answer, of course, is that any durable response to the rising influence of a shadow-class of techno-elites will have to involve more than political solutions; such a response would require a holistic approach to civic participation such that even our new philanthro-aristocracy become responsive to the ebbs and flows of public approval.
To be fair, Callahan is surely aware of these deeper issues, but his public argument—at least in the Times editorial—relies upon a sort of marginal technocratic jiggering ultimately ill-suited to the task before us.
Photo credit: Thomas Hawk via Visual Hunt / CC BY-NC