Is philanthropy, by its very nature, a threat to today’s democracy? Though we may laud wealthy individuals who give away their money for society’s benefit, Just Giving shows how such generosity not only isn’t the unassailable good we think it to be but might also undermine democratic values and set back aspirations of justice. Big philanthropy is often an exercise of power, the conversion of private assets into public influence. And it is a form of power that is largely unaccountable, often perpetual, and lavishly tax-advantaged. The affluent—and their foundations—reap vast benefits even as they influence policy without accountability. And small philanthropy, or ordinary charitable giving, can be problematic as well. Charity, it turns out, does surprisingly little to provide for those in need and sometimes worsens inequality.
Rob Reich is professor of political science and, by courtesy, professor of philosophy and at the Graduate School of Education, at Stanford University. He is the director of the Center for Ethics in Society and faculty co-director of the Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society (publisher of the Stanford Social Innovation Review), both at Stanford University. Most recently, he is the author of the forthcoming book, Just Giving: Why Philanthropy is Failing Democracy and How It Can Do Better (Princeton University Press) and the recent Philanthropy in Democratic Societies (edited with Chiara Cordelli and Lucy Bernholz). His current work focuses on ethics and technology, and he is editing a new volume called Digital Technology and Democratic Theory (with Lucy Bernholz and Helene Landemore). He is the recipient of multiple teaching awards and is a board member of GiveWell.org and the magazine Boston Review.