March 17, 2005
by William A. Schambra
The following essay was prepared for a discussion on goals and intentions in philanthropy—part of a series of six discussions entitled "The Dialogues on Civic Philanthropy: Perfecting Our Grants" (2005-2006). By clicking the links to the right, you can access more information on this series, learn about the Dialogues project as a whole, read other prepared essays, and download discussion transcripts.
THE AMERICAN Founders left their work, in a decisive sense, incomplete. They erected the constitutional framework for a large, commercial republic, not only for the sake of prosperity, but also to cultivate certain habits and practices within the new democracy. A people engaged in commerce, the Founders understood, would be too sober and moderate—too busy—to succumb to the political passions that had torn apart all previous democracies. But as the Founders knew, and as Alexis de Tocqueville reminded us, commerce, while salutary against zealotry, also brings with it the danger of individualist isolation—an absorption in narrow, materialistic interests to the exclusion of citizenly, moral, and spiritual concerns. Radically self-absorbed individuals all too willingly turn their affairs over to governing elites, who happily meet the material needs of the population, so long as their managerial prerogatives are not challenged. Democracy’s proud self-governance might yield to what Tocqueville described as a soft, narcotized tyranny.
Yet the Founders and Tocqueville were persuaded that Americans could avoid this trap. For beyond and beneath the constitutional superstructure lay a vast multiplicity of local communities, townships, religious institutions, neighborhoods, fraternal and sororal orders, and voluntary associations. These small, local associations molded individuals into citizens, calling them out of their private, commercial interests into larger, public concerns, and immersing them in moral and spiritual communities that lifted their vision beyond mere material gain. Citizens thus taught to be vigilant, vigorous, and personally responsible were unlikely to succumb to egoistic isolation and materialism—to become merely passive, self-indulgent clients of elites. The Founders were so confident of the durability of this undergirding of local civic and moral agencies (and so averse to nationalized "soulcraft") that they left that part of the constitutional design unspoken, unwritten, incomplete.
Completing this important part of the Founders' project is today largely in the hands of America's foundations and nonprofits—the modern descendants of Tocqueville's voluntary associations. But we certainly don't usually think of foundations and their grantees in that way. We don't often consider the impact a grant may have on the habits and habituators of self-governance, regarded by the Founders as essential to the survival of a healthy democracy. We have been led away from such considerations in part by philanthropy itself.
America's first large foundations—Carnegie, Rockefeller, and Russell Sage—arose at the same time as and were heavily influenced by the last century's progressive movement. Progressivism's intellectuals dismissed America's small, local civic associations as petty, parochial, outdated relics of the past, doomed by vast, new, community-shattering social forces like urbanization and industrialization. Happily, new social sciences like economics, sociology, psychology, and political science had emerged, capable of analyzing and understanding distant, overweening social forces. Political elites steeped in social science expertise would be able to harness and direct those forces for the good, once political authority had been taken away from the chaotic jumble of local communities, and centralized in their capable hands.
The 20th century's new, "scientific" philanthropy understood itself to be very much in progressivism's avant garde. The major new foundations aimed to underwrite the development and public application of the social sciences through support for research universities, policy research institutes, and professional associations. As the federal government grew, foundations experimented with various approaches to social problems, passing on the best for full implementation. Scientific philanthropy famously promised to get at the "root causes" of problems by tracing them back to the hidden but potent forces producing them. By contrast, Tocqueville's paltry local associations had only been able to cope with the effects of such causes through feeble "charity."
Today, it is still not uncommon to hear that philanthropy's chief contribution to public life is its support for politically insulated, objective, professional elites, experimenting with "innovative" approaches to public problem-solving. In Waldemar Nielsen's words, foundations are "free from constraints of politics, pressure groups, or short-term congressional thinking" and benefit from "the ideas of the best of our scholars, scientists, and social reformers," so they are "potentially a competent, non-self-interested, uniquely American resource to draw upon" in "enabling American society to cope with, and ultimately conquer, some of its most threatening problems."
A number of concerns are raised by this view of philanthropy, not the least of which is: after billions of philanthropic dollars spent over the course of a century getting at "root causes," has even one significant social problem been traced to its roots and "conquered" once and for all? But here we are interested in another problem: namely, that scientific philanthropy seems to be a creature right out of Tocqueville's worst nightmare. The gradual accumulation of authority in the hands of expert elites, happy to solve problems for people so long as they are left "free from constraints" imposed by those people, is precisely the danger he feared above all in the age of democracy.
Modern society is already full of messages that self-governing citizenship through vigorous, local community is a romantic atavism. Our culture, amplified by the marketplace, encourages materialistic self-indulgence and privatized pleasures. Meanwhile, professional elites in all walks of life are more than happy to relieve us of attention to public concerns, since after all credentialed expertise is required for the job. No time could be worse for our neo-Tocquevillian sector to join in the denigration of citizenship and the apotheosis of professional expertise—to treat citizens as sweet, amiable volunteers, busying themselves with quaint, charitable gestures, while the real work of public problem-solving is done by the experts back at foundation HQ.
It's not clear what can be done about our culture's materialism or society's disenfranchising professionalism. But a more self-conscious philanthropy can readily become part of the solution, rather than the problem. Donors can learn to become more attentive to the civic health of the nation, more aware that their grants and the lessons they convey may serve either to reinforce or to undercut the civic attitudes, practices, and institutions understood by the Founders to be essential for the survival of their constitutional order.
A foundation interested in cultivating civic renewal will shake itself free of the cult of expertise, and open itself to the possibility that a small, local community may already have figured out how to solve its own problems in its own way. It will actively seek out the scruffy, struggling grassroots associations that embody those solutions, with program officers who no longer lecture, but look and listen. Otherwise hidden from the view of the large, downtown social service agencies, neighborhood groups have found ways to solve social problems not once and for all, but one person at a time. It might be easy to dismiss this as mere charity, but in many cases it involves a kind of community-sustained spiritual transformation that truly does reach "root causes" deep in a person's heart.
Funding such efforts does more than solve problems, though. It also honors and encourages the notion that democratic citizens are capable of governing themselves, inspirited by their own deepest moral and cultural beliefs. Amateur, grassroots solutions may not be the most efficient, or reflect the latest findings of social science, or provide a generalizeable "model" for any situation beyond the one immediately presented. But they emerge from civic reflection and deliberation, and so reinforce the civic virtues the Founders understood to be essential to democratic self-governance. Grant-making guided by this understanding will attend first to upbuilding the nation's civic infrastructure within the moral, political, cultural, and spiritual institutions of local community.
Scientific philanthropy considers itself to be a detached problem solver, funding experts to track down root causes. Civic renewal philanthropy considers itself to be a catalyst of civic engagement, helping to complete the Founding by cultivating democratic self-governance and the moral and civic virtues it requires. Our times demand a philanthropy that prefers citizen over expert.
Senior Fellow William A. Schambra is the director of Hudson Institute's Bradley Center for Philanthropy and Civic Renewal.
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