Tax incentives for charity, government contracts to nonprofit organizations, and centuries of vibrant civil society embedded within American history render any sharp dichotomy between policy and charity erroneous. Despite modernity’s proclivity for creating sterile taxonomies, the temptation to separate charity from state is actually an impossible task.
In a recent piece for Aljazeera America, Professor Susan Dwyer asks the ethical question, “Should the intervention of private actors be welcomed in work that is arguably the responsibility of the government?” To answer this question, Dwyer frames her argument in terms of morality, using the foil of Andrew Carnegie’s The Gospel of Wealth and the central case study of Good Ventures.
For background: Good Ventures, established in 2011, was founded by Cari Tuna and Dustin Moskotivz, the latter being one of the co-founders of Facebook. The organization operates three separate corporations – a public charity, a private foundation, and a for-profit LLC. According to Open Philanthropy Project, Good Ventures’ mission is “to help humanity thrive.”
Returning to Dwyer’s argument (which can be read in full here), there are two emphases. First, the argument presents “practical challenges” regarding the intervention of private actors in areas that are “arguably the responsibility of the government.” For the argument, the only practical challenges are about metrics, and they are “surmountable.” Dwyer writes:
Beyond minimizing waste and the misdirection of funds, this kind of rational, quantitative approach to philanthropy, otherwise known as effective altruism, undermines the myth that the very wealthy have special moral insight into what is best for the rest of us. “
According to William Schambra, “effective altruism” essentially amounts to “strategic philanthropy on steroids.”
Second, Dwyer returns to the central point of her argument, viz. the relationship between charity and government. From the perspective of democracy, “Citizens must keep a critical eye on private actors who move in to assist the state in solving social problems to ensure those solutions do not come at the price of reduced democracy.” From the perspective of morality, there is a significant issue regarding the “total discretion” practiced by wealthy philanthropists. Amounting to a critique of Carnegie’s conception of the “proper administration of wealth,” the article’s ultimate concern is whether the “advantages” of private enterprise are used to exploit social issues for individual gain.
Nevertheless, Dwyer’s ultimate conclusion acknowledges the benefits to shared space between private and public (charity and policy) through establishments like “offices of strategic partnerships.” Most importantly, however, the argument notes, “citizens . . . must keep a critical eye on private actors who move in to assist the state.”
While I do not think that the article’s conclusions are necessarily false, I have two concerns with regard to the logic employed by the argument. First, the entire framework of the article assumes that charity and government are separate entities. Particularly through the language of “taking over for government,” the article makes it clear that the relationship between these two units is solely with regard to shared policy space. In practice, however, this is hardly the case. To use the example from the article, just looking at Good Ventures’ Grants Database reveals how charity and policy are intertwined. For example, last year, Good Ventures provided a $285,000 grant to “ImmigrationWorks Foundation.” This foundation is tied to ImmigrationWorks USA, a group that actively lobbies members of Congress. How can charity “take over for government” if charity is already a significant part in driving the policymaking process?
Second, the argument focuses exclusively on Big Philanthropy (most evident through the use of Facebook’s co-founder’s nonprofit organization as the central case). It would appear that the status quo relationship between local organizations and governments ameliorate the assumed shortcoming of private actors “taking over” the responsibilities of government. This local perspective enlightens the argument with regard to the shared responsibilities of government and charity. Just visiting my own hometown’s website (that is, the municipal government’s website), I am overwhelmed with references to local nonprofit organizations. Although it is tempting to think solely in terms of Big Philanthropy and national politics, it is unwise to gloss over the fundamental building blocks of local organizations within a federal system of government.
Dwyer introduces a meaningful question with regard to the philanthropy possibly taking over for government. The question’s weakness, however, is that it presumes their separation in the first place.