Love & Justice, Philanthropy & Social Policy

Apr 11, 2012

To CBC Metro Morning host, Matt Galloway

Good morning, Matt:

One of your guests this morning talked about ‘the emerging new philanthropy’.  I am thinking that the great ages of philanthropy tend to coincide with the great ages of inequity:  think robber barons, Carnegie and libraries, etc.

There’s a lot of wealth in this city, one of them said.  We need to leverage that.

Indeed.  Tax it.

Matt, though charity, like volunteerism, is an impulse to be cultivated in us all, it is not the way to do social policy.  Having by various means persuaded our legislators to participate in their desire to pay as small a share in society-building as possible, our élites now want us to thank them for saving here and there some baubles of a crumbing social infrastructure that, with progressive taxation we would not need, thank you.  It turns citizens into supplicants.  Please, sir…

We are now invited to buy bricks or lottery tickets to fund hospitals, corporatize the classroom, turn over increasing sections of public space to billboards, pay fees to use the commons.  And, in case we forget who brought us this mess, I mean largesse, we can see their names on our theatres, art galleries, hospital wings, educational and research institutions, science centres, sports arenas, etc. And, if we’re uh lucky, perhaps a water-front casino – the most cynical of public policy funding ideas that anyone ever came up with.

The affairs of community, the structures of politics and economics, must be governed by a spirit of justice, not philanthropy.  Nice people, particularly nice rich religious people, think that the practice of the law of love holds not just in the personal, but also in the collective, public sphere.  Let me offer a few quotes from Reinhold Neibuhr, who wrote so compellingly of these themes in his book, Love and Justice.

‘The effort to substitute the law of love for the spirit of justice instead of recognising love as the fulfillment and highest form of the spirit of justice, is derived from the failure to measure the power and persistence of self-interest…

‘  … [B]usinessmen are more frequently characterised by a spirit of philanthropy than by a spirit of justice in assessing the claims and counter-claims of economic groups.  Love, in the form of philanthropy is, in fact, on a lower level than a high form of justice.  For philanthropy is given to those who make no claims against us, who do not challenge our goodness or disinterestedness.  An act of philanthropy may thus be an expression of both power and moral complacency.  An act of justice, on the other hand, requires the humble recognition that the claim that another makes against us may be legitimate.’

There is this sense, Neibuhr writes (with his Christian, particularly wealthy Christian, readership in mind), that ‘only uncoërced [read:  untaxed] goodness is real goodness’.  Neibuhr gets explicit:  ‘This does not take into account that we need a great deal of second-rate goodness to get along with one another.  We have to have a taxation system that demands more of us than we are inclined to give voluntarily; and we must maintain a social security system that holds us responsible for the security of families other than our own beyond our natural inclination.’

Whether it is corporate social responsibility (a term regarded by some as oxymoronic) or noblesse oblige, the task is not to discern the purity of the impulse on the part of the philanthrope; it is to fix the gap that separates the inappropriately designated ‘fortunate’ and ‘less fortunate’.  Social system crumbling, like poverty, is a political choice.  If political, then a politics that is attuned not simply to those on their speed-dial is the leaven needed, not philanthropy.  I’m glad the nine year-old in your piece felt good for her good works; but it is justice, redistribution of the wealth created in our society to all, based on a fierce critique of notions of the ‘deserving rich’ and the ‘undeserving poor’ that her elders need to teach her and to model, joining the ‘tax me’ campaign as opposed to the brass plaque campaign.



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