“Now when Jesus heard these things, he said unto him, Yet lackest thou one thing: sell all that thou hast, and distribute unto the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, follow me.”
— Luke 18:22, from the King James Version of the Bible.
Philanthropy, meaning love of humanity,differs from charitable giving in that the rich conduct philanthropy in broad brush strokes for society, while charity is usually in the form of small gestures from one individual for the benefit of other individuals or small organizations. Andrew Carnegie, the steel baron of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, endowed libraries across the country as well as cultural institutions. the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations have similarly given large grants to institutions since their establishment in the early twentieth century. When John D. Rockefeller handed out dimes to individuals, as he was known to do, that was charity, not what is generally considered philanthropy.
Two women donate food to a homeless man on Broadway in New York City. Photo by Ed Yourdon.
Among modern philanthropists are Warren Buffett and Bill Gates. Supreme Egotist wants to be included in that group, but like everything else he does, his philanthropy is a fantasy for the benefit of his narcissism and con artistry more than it is a real construct for the love of humanity. After first acknowledging what a good thing people like Mr. Buffett and Mr. Gates are offering to do with their money, the next thing that springs to mind is how on earth they accumulated their kind of wealth in order to give at least some of it away. The conventional capitalist idea is that they gained all their riches through their own hard work and good fortune. Maybe so. An aspect of capitalism that is usually glossed over in this scenario is how wealth begets wealth in algorithmic numbers. In other words, rich people in our system can benefit from a snowball effect.
There is a negative snowball effect in operation for poor people in our system who find themselves slipping away due to an unfortunate set of circumstances, whether by their own making or not. A person working a non-union factory job gets injured and cannot work, and for one reason or another workmen’s compensation and unemployment insurance either do not apply or are insufficient, and within months or a few short years the person ends up homeless. Living paycheck to paycheck, disaster is always lurking around a corner of bad luck. These unfortunates, who for the luck of the draw at any moment could be almost any one of us, may have to rely for their next meal and night out of the weather on the charitable giving of those who for the time being enjoy regular meals and a comfortable night’s sleep in their own bed.
What about the philanthropists whose giving is steered toward redressing larger societal ills? Andrew Carnegie hired goons to bust heads when workers at his steel mills struck for better hours, wages, and working conditions. This was the same Andrew Carnegie who endowed libraries so that the children of those workers could get a better education than their parents. He stole from the poor to give to the poor, and as the money changed hands along the way he made a tidy profit for himself. Are today’s philanthropists much better? Instead of expressing thanks for endowments and grants, perhaps it would be better to question whither the gains were gotten. That’s not likely, however, since it is almost always institutions such as universities that receive those endowments and grants, and stodgy university bureaucracies are not in the habit of examining gift horses too closely.
USS Constitution‘s Yeoman 3rd Class Roberta Lee serves lunch to residents of the New England Shelter for Homeless Veterans. USS Constitution sailors volunteered at the shelter July 1, 2009, as part of Navy Community Outreach’s Boston Navy Week. Photo by U.S. Navy Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Anna Kiner.
What about the recipients of individual charitable gifts, are they relieved of responsibility? Did any of them question John D. Rockefeller about the provenance of the dime he handed them? Most likely not. It is better in spirit, however, for both giver and receiver if a charitable gift is borne out of the giver’s own honest labor rather than the exploitation of the labor of others or the use of money to beget money. Sharing the little extra one may have with another less fortunate is more meaningful and helpful to society than the sharing of largesse by another who came by it through the impoverishment in finances and spirit of the public as a whole.
A scene from the 1982 meditative documentary Koyaanisqatsi, directed by Godfrey Reggio, with music by Philip Glass.