In Amy Kass, editor, Giving Well, Doing Good: Readings for Thoughtful Philanthropists
January 7, 2008
by William A. Schambra
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This essay appears in Amy Kass's edited volume Giving Well, Doing Good: Readings for Thoughtful Philanthropists (Indiana University Press, January 2008), pp. 471-478. Click here to read more about Giving Well, Doing Good.
WHEN WARREN Buffett announced his multi-billion dollar bequest to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in the summer of 2006, he explained his generous if unconventional act of charity by claiming that “if your goal is to return the money to society by attacking truly major problems that don’t have a commensurate funding base—what could you find that’s better than turning to a couple of people who are young, who are ungodly bright. . . .”
American philanthropy’s romance with the “ungodly bright” has a long, if not always noble, pedigree. After all, the first large foundations—Carnegie, Rockefeller, Russell Sage—were established during, and fully reflected the predilections of, America’s progressive era at the beginning of the 20th century. The progressives were persuaded that, just as disease was rapidly being conquered by modern science and medicine, so “social pathogens”—the ultimate source of our social ills—could be tracked down and eradicated once and for all, given new sciences of human behavior like sociology, psychology, and public administration. But this would require that the management of human affairs be taken out of the hands of the benighted many and put into the care of the enlightened few, trained and credentialed in the new social sciences. Not coincidentally, this was precisely the direction history itself wished to take. As their name suggests, progressives were convinced that history was the story of inexorable progress from the selfish individualism and parochial localism of the past to a new era of social-minded brotherhood. But only the ungodly bright avant garde had the historical and scientific insight to break with the parochial allegiances of the past, and persuade or compel the many to follow them into a more promising, socially conscious, collective future.
The first large foundations eagerly bought into progressivism’s view that new, professionally trained elites were trailblazers into a brighter future. And so they invested massively in the rationalization, standardization, and modernization of old professions like law, education, and medicine. To bring a new order and discipline to public affairs, they also funded the development of new professions like social work and public administration. These updated old and new professions would find their home in the modern research university—another favorite funding target for Carnegie and Rockefeller—where genuinely objective research could be conducted free from the distorting pressures of politics and markets, and where the next generation of elites would be trained.
Even the way these foundations organized themselves—existing in perpetuity, with highly abstract statements of purpose—reflected an abiding faith in the progressive accumulation of intelligence in the hands of the few. As long-time Rockefeller Foundation president Raymond Fosdick noted, only open-ended, perpetual giving was able to accommodate the optimistic conviction that “the dead hand should be removed from charitable bequests,” leaving grantmaking decisions entirely “in the hands of living men,” because “the wisdom of living men will always exceed the wisdom of any man, however wise, who has long since been dead.”
This overarching faith in the new sciences of society lies behind one of the most frequently repeated justifications for modern philanthropy, uttered first by John D. Rockefeller himself: “the best philanthropy is constantly in search for finalities—a search for cause, an attempt to cure the evils at their source.” The old, discredited approach of charity, in this view, responded too emotionally and directly to the immediate problems of individuals before them. It did not use its head. It lacked the steely, detached scientific knowledge to see through the bewildering, distracting, superficial manifestations of social ailments, down to the final, root causes of those ailments, which we now had the power to cure once and for all.
But only the ungodly bright few are able properly to exercise scientific discipline. Quoting Oliver Wendell Holmes, Fosdick made this link explicit: “If notwithstanding the apparent confusion and welter of our life, we are able to find a steadiness of purpose and quiet dominating intelligence, it is largely because of [those] who have been trained to a considerable extent in the scientific method.”
It might seem today that we no longer look to social science with such naïve, utopian expectations. Nevertheless, the language and practice of modern American philanthropy still reflect an abiding faith in the ungodly bright to lead us into a new, more rational world. As recently as 2006, the new president of the Rockefeller Foundation took office with an unabashed reaffirmation of the vision of 1910: “The focus of this wonderful foundation on the root causes of social ills is very powerful and very compelling.”
Hence, foundations invariably describe themselves as innovators and experimenters, relentlessly pursuing “social change” through new and imaginative projects that will conclusively reveal the hidden workings of underlying social forces. Their programs are designed according to cutting edge academic theories about social behavior and carried out by staff with impressive professional credentials. Foundations know that they are tapping into root causes because their programs produce concrete outcomes analyzable by sophisticated scientific metrics. Philanthropy is peculiarly positioned to play this pioneering role in social change, it is often argued, because it is mercifully insulated from market forces, political demands, and other bothersome pressures of the everyday world, and so can come at public problems from a uniquely objective, detached point of view. In other words, foundations still provide a perch from which the ungodly bright can steer social change in a progressive direction.
It is hardly surprising, then, that Warren Buffett should have surveyed the perplexing variety of charitable needs and projects clambering for his attention, and concluded that it was better to “attack truly major problems” by turning his fortune over to the intelligent few. For all the changes the twentieth century wrought, its philanthropy closed the century as it began, with leadership by the ungodly bright still regarded as the only progressive and enlightened path for grantmaking.
After a full century of insisting that their peculiar value to society is the ability to get to root causes of, and decisively solve, social problems, how have foundations performed? For a field so insistent that its grantees show demonstrable outcomes, philanthropy in fact has precious little to show for itself. One hundred years ago, at a time when the federal government’s presence in social policy was insignificant, foundations did in fact play a major role in establishing the institutions and professional structures of medicine and public health, with considerable pay-off when it came to combating diseases like yellow fever and hook worm. Later, scientific developments in agriculture supported by the large American foundations produced the “Green Revolution,” saving millions from starvation. But when it comes to social—not medical or agricultural—problems, the record of philanthropy is abysmal.
Here, philanthropy has largely tinkered around the edges of the de livery systems of the social welfare state, fine tuning this program, replicating that one, and rearranging existing services into new combinations. That may be commendable work, but it’s hardly how philanthropy justifies itself. It claims rather that the ungodly bright deserve the privileged position of grantmaking leadership because they don’t tinker, but rather cut directly to the source of significant social problems, grasp their cause, and solve them once and for all—just as hookworm was decisively eradicated in large parts of the South. And this is precisely where philanthropy has such a feeble record. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to name a single social problem—even an insignificant one—the roots of which philanthropy has laid bare and solved.
Even worse, philanthropy has on at least one occasion followed what looked like a root cause in a particularly monstrous direction. Early in the 20th century, the new science of eugenics recommended itself to Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, and his son “Junior,” precisely because it appealed to their “root causes” aspirations. Just as tracking physiological diseases back to germs had begun to eliminate root causes of medical ailments, so tracking social pathology—crime, pauperism, dypsomania, and moral laxity—back to defective genes would allow us to attack it at its roots. Indeed, suggested prominent progressive scholar Charles Van Hise, “We know enough about eugenics so that if the knowledge were applied, the defective classes would disappear within a generation.” They would disappear because the eugenicists had set out to persuade the state to confine and sterilize the unfit. As Junior noted, this was the only “scientific way of escape from the evils” to which bad genes gave rise.
From the perspective of philanthropic eugenics, the old practice of charity—that is, simply alleviating human suffering—was not only inefficient, it was downright harmful. As birth control heroine Margaret Sanger (another Rockefeller grantee) put it, America’s charitable institutions are the “surest signs that our civilization has bred, is breeding, and is perpetuating constantly increasing numbers of defectives, delinquents, and dependents.”
Efforts to develop and apply eugenics to eliminate the defective classes were undertaken with Rockefeller and Carnegie support at the Eugenics Record Office at New York’s Cold Spring Harbor. Rockefeller funds would also go toward research institutions in Germany that were seeking ways to discourage the propagation of inferior individuals and races, drawing their inspiration from the techniques proving themselves in the United States. By the time Cold Spring Harbor’s eugenics program ended in the late '30s, tens of thousands of “defectives” in America had been institutionalized or sterilized, and the ground had been laid for the most unspeakable horrors of the twentieth century.
It might be possible to dismiss the eugenics episode as a wrong turn on the road to progress, as indeed, it is treated in the few histories that mention it at all. But it is also possible to look at eugenics as illustrative of the central danger posed by commissioning the ungodly bright to drive relentlessly to the root causes of social problems. Modern philanthropy asks our foundation elites—already well insulated from the rest of us by credentialed expertise, professional detachment and privileged tax status—to look past or to deliberately ignore the immediate and diverse needs of those immediately in front of them. Those needs are, after all, mere symptoms, attention to which was the old, discredited approach of charity.
But once the ungodly bright steel themselves sufficiently to see sufferers not as unique individuals, but rather as insubstantial manifestations of underlying pathologies, it becomes easy to pursue solutions that at first ignore, and finally violate, innate human dignity. Indeed, the bright may well conclude that the most merciful way to alleviate suffering is to prevent anyone from becoming a sufferer in the first place—by cutting off suffering at its genuine root. They become vulnerable to British socialist Havelock Ellis’s view, that “the superficially sympathetic man flings a coin to the beggar; the more deeply sympathetic man builds an almshouse for him; but perhaps the most radically sympathetic of all is the man who arranges that the beggar shall not be born.”
Today, of course, our knowledge of the human genome and our growing capacity to manipulate it at will present us unparalleled opportunities to see to it that beggars—or “undesirables” of any sort—shall not be born. The fact that we are now able to do so without resort to the crude, messy eugenics of sterilization makes it all the more tempting to view this as a purely scientific act of “radical sympathy.” As late as 1952, Raymond Fosdick would praise Rockefeller’s investments in its natural sciences program as a way to “develop so sound and extensive a genetics that we can hope to breed in the future superior men.” That temptation is compounded by the fact that the eugenics episode has been airbrushed entirely from the relentlessly upbeat historical account of American philanthropy. At the precise moment when we need more than ever to grapple with the subtle moral pitfalls of genetics-driven, root-causes philanthropy, we are too embarrassed or too ashamed even to acknowledge that we have faced and failed the test before.
Whether the philanthropy of the ungodly bright takes a monstrous turn, or—as it has for over a century—merely conceals its futility with lofty rhetoric, it would be useful today to rethink philanthropy, given the likely arrival of considerable amounts of philanthropic dollars as wealth passes from one generation to the next.
What might a new approach to philanthropy look like? It would start by challenging the central premise of 20th century philanthropy that the ungodly bright are somehow better equipped to solve society’s problems than are everyday citizens. The notion that citizens themselves could and should play a central role in solving their own problems is, of course, reflected in Alexis de Tocqueville’s understanding of American democracy. The great danger of the new age of democracy, in his view, was that citizens would become too absorbed with narrow, materialistic pursuits to pay attention to public affairs, and would be willing to turn over their affairs to management by bright, benevolent elites. That might result in a smoothly operating and efficient social service delivery system. But it would also mean an ominous concentration of power in a few hands, as well as a gradual impoverishment of the spirit or soul of the democratic citizen, as he lost the capacity or the desire to engage with—and to be enlarged by—vigorous encounters with other citizens of differing backgrounds and opinions.
Curiously, American foundations today frequently fund studies and conferences anxiously pondering precisely this problem of citizen disengagement and the decline of the democratic spirit in America. But they seldom look critically at their own practices, to consider whether their clear preference for public management by the ungodly bright might not in itself convey a dispiriting message to democratic citizens, and feed the cycle of disengagement.
How might it be otherwise? Tocqueville suggested that Americans had avoided the central problem of democracy by leaving considerable authority to solve problems in the hands of small, local, decentralized institutions and voluntary associations of all sorts, within which citizens would be expected to thrash out their differences and come up with their own, albeit often rough-and-ready, solutions to their problems. This is more than seeking “feedback” from citizens about programs designed for them by others. It is, rather, genuine self-government, with final decisions left to citizens themselves.
Perhaps foundations wishing to pursue an alternative to leadership by the ungodly bright could build their giving instead squarely on Tocqueville’s insight. They could redirect funding to programs that originate with the views of citizens at the grassroots, with their understanding of the problems they face, and how they wish to go about addressing them. Solutions tailored by citizens who actually live with the problems are more likely to be effective for their own neighborhoods. Community ownership insures that these approaches will be supported and sustained over the long haul, rather than provoking the sort of resistance that often greets programs designed by remote experts and “parachuted” into neighborhoods. Perhaps most important, the process of formulating and proposing solutions to their own problems cultivates in citizens the skills essential to democratic self-governance—the ability at first to endure, but finally perhaps to relish, the messy, gritty process of deliberating, arguing, and compromising demanded by American democracy’s conviction that all citizens are to be treated with dignity and respect. This is at some remove, indeed, from Warren Buffett’s preference for a kind of philanthropy that would insulate him from being “too involved with a lot of people I wouldn’t want to be involved with and [having] to listen to more opinions than I would enjoy.”
Tocquevillian or civic renewal philanthropy would reach out quietly but actively into the communities it wishes to assist, harvesting “street wisdom” about which groups genuinely capture a community’s self-understanding of its problems. Such groups will more than likely have duct tape on their industrial carpeting and water stains on their ceilings. They will not be able to draft clever, eye-catching libertying brochures or grant proposals. They will not have sophisticated accounting systems, or be able to lay out a schedule of measurable outcomes. They will not speak the language of the social sciences, but more often than not, the language of sin and spiritual redemption. They will not be staffed by well-paid credentialed experts, but rather by volunteers whose chief credential is that they themselves have managed to overcome the problem they are now helping others to confront. No matter what the group’s formal charter states, it will minister to whatever needs present themselves at the door, even if it means being accused of inefficiency or mission drift. For each person is treated not as an inadequately self-aware bundle of pathologies, but rather as a unique individual, a citizen possessed of a soul, demanding a respectful, humane response to the entire person.
This approach turns completely on its head the still-entrenched orthodoxy of progressive philanthropy. Indeed, it looks suspiciously like charity—the antiquated, discredited approach which nonetheless honored and ministered personally to the individual before it. Charity does indeed deal with “mere symptoms” because they are what people themselves consider important, rather than with root causes visible only to experts who can “see through” the client. Because civic renewal philanthropy tackles social problems individual by individual, neighborhood by neighborhood, and because it relies on and entrusts ordinary, public-spirited citizens, familiar with the communities of which they are a part, to lead the way—to identify and resolve their own problems in their own way—this approach will not appeal to the ungodly bright.
It is hardly surprising that the immensely wealthy today should find appealing the century-old vision of putting massive funding into cutting-edge technology in order to de liver the decisive, “knock-out punch” to some vexing social problem. Perhaps a handful, however, will come to appreciate the lesson of the past century, that there are no knock-outs in the effort to improve society, and the search for them can readily take ugly turns. By funding more concrete, immediate, community-based efforts of the sort described by Tocqueville, however, it would be possible to make modest headway against social ills. It would also contribute to a much loftier purpose, the revival of civic engagement and democratic self-governance in America, perhaps thereby helping to insure the survival of our democratic republic. But to appreciate the importance of that goal, it is necessary to transcend the narrow, scientific knowledge of the ungodly bright. It requires instead a kind of prudence or wisdom that aims at an attainable good, while accepting and working with, rather than trying to see through, the bewildering variety of human needs. It thus fully respects and helps to preserve democratic citizenship and human dignity. This would be the philanthropy, not of the ungodly bright, but rather of the godly wise.
Senior Fellow William A. Schambra is the director of Hudson Institute's Bradley Center for Philanthropy and Civic Renewal.
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