“Generous” Billionaires Are Part of the Problem

Modern-day elite philanthropy serves the same purpose as it did in the days of the robber barons: reinforcing the power of the rich.

Bill Gates participates in a discussion at the Economic Club of Washington in 2019. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

In 2018, the richest man in human history donated roughly 0.1 percent of his wealth to charity. Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, meanwhile, proved in a more giving mood, donating 3.9 percent and 2.6 percent, respectively, to charitable causes. For most other billionaires in the top twenty as ranked by net wealth, the figure was typically somewhere between 0.1% and 0.3% — which is not exactly “generous” as most of us understand it. Generosity, by definition, must involve a degree of sacrifice, and what, exactly, is a person worth billions giving up by shelling out a hundred million or so in support of a voluntarily chosen cause?

Not much — and, in fact, the question should really be inverted, because the enterprise of big philanthropy ultimately benefits the wealthy a great deal. Though this news is something less than earth shattering, a newly published review of scholarship surrounding elite giving in the United States and UK makes the case with particular force. Jointly authored by four academics based at different universities in Britain, “Elite philanthropy in the United States and United Kingdom in the new age of inequalities” both lends weight to the existing critiques of big philanthropy and offers some useful theoretical foundations for critics moving forward.

The authors begin by noting the flourishing of philanthropy and charitable societies during the first great period of inequality in the capitalist era — which extended from the mid-nineteenth century until early in the twentieth. “Then, as now,” they write,

entrepreneurial elites amassed vast fortunes while large numbers of people struggled to make ends meet. Civic‐minded entrepreneurs with the wherewithal to improve the lives of others led the way in solving many social problems created by industrialization and the triumph of capitalism.

This wave of charity, as is now abundantly clear, did little to address the underlying causes of inequality, though, as the authors argue, it ultimately provided tremendous benefits to figures like Andrew Carnegie and the economic order in which he had made his wealth. Those benefits were tangible, though not always directly quantifiable: coming in the form of “improved relations between capital and labour, enhanced reputation and political capital.” Carnegie himself, in fact, made this at least partly explicit in The Gospel of Wealth, in which he argued that “the problem of our age is the proper administration of wealth, so that the ties of brotherhood may still bind together the rich and poor in harmonious relationship.”

In much the same vein, they argue, today’s elites practice charitable giving largely for personal benefit and because large-scale giving inevitably yields a kind of soft power. “Elite philanthropy,” the authors write,

is rarely a “pure gift” motivated solely by altruism; rather, it represents a means of converting surplus funds into prized alternative forms of capital. . . . On this analysis, elites are drawn to philanthropy not simply as a means of virtuously “giving back” to society, as is so often claimed, but also as an unimpeachable source of the complementary capitals needed to function effectively in the field of power.

Indeed, visit any hospital, museum, or university today and you’ll inevitably find the names of ultra-wealthy patrons emblazoned somewhere prominent for all to see. Scale this up to the commanding heights of big charity and you ultimately find figures like Bill Gates — who mysteriously increased his wealth by about 60 percent in roughly the decade and a half after pledging to give it all away. Gates’s giving may not have required much generosity on his part, but it certainly yielded big returns for his public reputation and, it would seem, for his own bottom line.

Elite philanthropy, far from being merely an inadequate solution to social problems, ultimately works to entrench and perpetuate them — offering a tiny handful of elites a useful vehicle for the purchase of virtue, and the soft power that comes with it, at the expense of the many.

Maybe it’s time we tried democracy instead.