The Awl: Our Billionaire Philanthropists

-By Maria Bustillos

June 13, 2012- In June of 1889, Andrew Carnegie published his essay "Wealth" in the North American Review: a famous document, as remarkable for the author’s delusional self-regard as it is for the case he makes for private philanthropy. The steel baron launched his argument with the dumbfounding claim that until "the past few hundred years [of human history] there was little difference between the dwelling, dress, food, environment of the chief and those of his retainers." He then sails blithely along to insist that we should all welcome the changes in society that make violent wealth inequality inevitable, because the benefits of wealth must inevitably trickle down to the least fortunate, etc., an assertion that many of later generations have come to view with a certain skepticism.

Despite the self-congratulatory hallucinations, "Wealth" contains a genuinely noble philanthropic message. The rich man has a duty to live unostentatiously, Carnegie argues—to provide modestly for his own dependents, and "to consider [the balance of his wealth] simply as trust funds, which he is called upon to administer […] to produce the most beneficial results for the community." He goes on to say, unblushingly, that the man of wealth is the ablest, best kind of man, who should therefore become "agent and trustee for his poorer brethren, bringing to their service his superior wisdom, experience, and ability to administer, doing for them better than they would or could do for themselves." One may wonder how these last remarks would have been received by the jailed and brutalized strikers of Carnegie's Homestead Mill.

If Carnegie’s gospel of wealth recalls to you the rhetoric and the general mindset of modern philanthropists such as Bill Gates, Pierre Omidyar, Michael Bloomberg, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, I can’t say I blame you. His Gilded Age vision of the industrialist’s lordly prerogative has survived mostly intact.

This is all the more striking for the vast changes wrought in the American social contract since Carnegie’s time. "There was no social welfare state in the 19th century," Robin Rogers told me recently; she's a sociologist at Queens College working on a book about how billionaire philanthropy is shaping public policy. When "Wealth" was published, America had yet to develop a concept of the absolute equality of its citizens, let alone any fixed mechanisms that might ensure their fair treatment in the Darwinian tumult of the industrial age. "The accountability that we expect today was simply not a part of what people thought," Rogers says; there were no child labor laws, no universal suffrage, and virtually no federal or state programs for social welfare of any kind.

Today’s billionaire philanthropist no longer operates in such a vacuum. The great successes of late 19th and early 20th century philanthropy, such as the transformation of medical education that began with the Flexner Report in 1906, served to pave the way for later, and far larger, government initiatives. But since the 1970s or so, philanthropists have grown less inclined to see their organizations as laboratories for the advancement of the American welfare state; instead, they have increasingly sought to develop projects that compete with, or supplant, the efforts of government. In fact, right-wing funding organizations such as the Koch and Scaife foundations routinely position themselves as the explicit adversaries of government.

So we may now legitimately question whether the "ablest" individuals, according to Carnegie’s formulation, really can serve the needs of the disadvantaged better than the government—which is to say, ourselves, in the form of our elected representatives—can do.

Answering or even asking that question as not as easy as it should be. Very few who work in the foundation world are willing to go on the record with even the most marginal of criticisms. Grad student and foundation researcher Tony Wang was uncharacteristically blunt on this point in an essay in Tactical Philanthropy last July (links in original):

Despite First Amendment protections and the availability of Internet anonymity, feelings of institutional allegiance and desires to avoid conflict, especially with colleagues that we respect and work with every day, cause many of us not to speak up on controversial topics. And because of the unique structure of our sector, where foundations enjoy the power of the purse, criticism of our sector is even harder to come by.

Criticism of organized philanthropy, scarce as it is today, has a long pedigree. In 1891, just two years after the appearance of "Wealth," Oscar Wilde published "The Soul of Man Under Socialism", an essay that came down like a sledgehammer on the assumptions of the Carnegies of the world. Wilde contended that charity has the insidious effect of perpetuating the unjust system that gives rise to poverty in the first place. "[As] the worst slave-owners were those who were kind to their slaves," he wrote, "and so prevented the horror of the system being realised by those who suffered from it, and understood by those who contemplated it, so […] the people who do most harm are the people who try to do most good, while preserving the system."

And yet there is a telling illustration of Wilde’s own principles of social generosity in action, in an anecdote that the writer’s friend Edgar Saltus told his 1917 book, Oscar Wilde, An Idler’s Impression:

On one occasion I drove with him to Tite Street. An hour previous he had executed a variation on the "Si j’étais roi." "If I were king," he had sung, "I would sit in a great hall and paint on green ivory and when my ministers came and told me that the people were starving, I would continue to paint on green ivory and say: ‘Let them starve. ’" […]

Afterward we drove to Chelsea. It was a vile night, bleak and bitter. On alighting, a man came up to me. He wore a short jacket which he opened. From neck to waist he was bare. I gave him a shilling. Then came the rebuke. With entire simplicity Wilde took off his overcoat and put it about the man.


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