Elizabeth Kolbert at the New Yorker has written an interesting article about philanthropy, “then and now.” “Then” was during the Gilded Age at the end of the Nineteenth century and the beginning of the Twentieth. “Now” is the age of the Silicon Valley magnates. In both cases, the recipients of the wealth are a) burdened with guilt over their success vs. everyone else’s failure, b) highly convinced over their moral goodness (the newer ones, unfettered by Christianity’s exhortation for humility, are more obnoxiously self-righteous than their Gilded Age predecessors,) and c) desirous to try to fix the problems of the age.
As someone whose ancestors were part of the Gilded Age (albeit not on the level of a Carnegie or a Vanderbilt) I can take a long view on this issue. I’ll say from the start that my Gilded Age ancestors and relatives were not, AFAIK, much on philanthropy. That wasn’t a part of our family idea; the idea of “give back” came much later (unless you count our years in Washington.)
The grandees of both floods of wealth used foundational philanthropy for just that purpose: to “give back” and make society better. There are several critiques to that method.
The first is the Marxist critique that the wealthy have exploited the surplus value of their workers and thus are always the problem. That haunted my relationship with the Episcopal Church, and was one reason I took my leave from same. Many “do-gooders” of the day thought they could solve the problems of the world through personal charitable work, but there’s more to it than that.
The second–and one which occupies much of Kolbert’s article–is the drain on the Treasury caused by the tax-exempt status of charitable giving and foundations. Again, anyone with the long view of the Internal Revenue Code knows that provisions come and provisions go. This could be changed; what’s sad is that, when it does get changed, it will be due to the government’s bankruptcy and desperate need for revenue. This also speaks to another Marxist critique, i.e., that private charity is merely a sop and unnecessary when the ideal state comes, which is why private charity was routinely outlawed in Marxist-Leninist states. (Tell that to people who wait for FEMA after a natural disaster…)
The third actually came out of the Gilded Age:
William Jewett Tucker, a professor of religion who would later become the president of Dartmouth, was no less horrified. What the “Gospel (of Wealth)” advocated, Tucker wrote, was “a vast system of patronage,” and nothing could “in the final issue create a more hopeless social condition.” To assume that “wealth is the inevitable possession of the few” was to evade the essential issue: “The ethical question of today centres, I am sure, in the distribution rather than in the redistribution of wealth.”
That applies as much to today as it did then. Yes, these foundations create enormous patronage, patronage that can even transcend race, as the article shows. Moreover Tucker put his finger on the key: the distribution of wealth. The growth of this new “Gilded Age” has come with growing income and wealth inequality in a society which should be really good at creating large amounts of wealth for a large number of people, when in fact a few are the primary beneficiaries. Today we have many campaigns for rights for all kinds of people funded in part by many of these foundations but growing income inequality. I personally think we’re seeing a shell game, intentional or not.
But Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ had an entirely different answer for the rich young ruler of his day, and one which those in ours would do well to consider:
And a man came up to Jesus, and said: “Teacher, what good thing must I do to obtain Immortal life?” “Why ask me about goodness?” answered Jesus. “There is but One who is good. If you want to enter the Life, keep the commandments.” “What commandments?” asked the man. “These,” answered Jesus:–“‘Thou shalt not kill. Thou shalt not commit adultery. Thou shalt not steal. Thou shalt not say what is false about others. Honor thy father and thy mother.’ And ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thou dost thyself.” “I have observed all these,” said the young man. “What is still wanting in me?” “If you wish to be perfect,” answered Jesus, “go and sell your property, and give to the poor, and you shall have wealth in Heaven; then come and follow me.” On hearing these words, the young man went away distressed, for he had great possessions. (Matthew 19:16-22 TCNT)
The best thing that those who achieve success in this life–and especially their descendants–can do is to impart their method of success (and that’s not easy for most entrepreneurs, because most can’t verbalise it) to others and then get out of the way and leave it to those whom they taught.