Just Giving: Why Philanthropy Is Failing Democracy and How It Can Do Better

Rob Reich

Book cover

I picked this up after reading Anand Giridharadas’s “Winners Take All,” which I gathered drew on a lot of ideas from Reich and other academics. It’s a short but engaging read, which I would personally recommend over WTA. Reich’s point in JG is to try to develop a theory-based view of the appropriate role of philanthropy in specifically democratic societies. He notes that government incentivization of philanthropy (through tax breaks for charitable giving) is a relatively recent development in human history, while of course, charitable giving in various forms has existed at least back to ancient times. What is a democratic government’s interest in supporting private giving–especially when, at least as currently structured, this giving is heavily weighted toward the preferences of the wealthy and in general is not targeted to help the poorest in society?

Reich also explores whether there can be any justification for perpetual private charitable foundations. He presents some very interesting historical context around this point, showing that the idea was heavily resisted by the likes of John Stuart Mill, and showing the initial political resistance to the establishment of the Rockefeller foundation. This is quite eye-opening for a reader coming from a period where charitable foundations are nothing short of lionized. But Mill and others expressed concerns that foundations outlasting their founders would be essentially unaccountable to any living persons. Reich also demonstrates the proliferation of small foundations, which can probably be better described as “family tax dodges” more so than civic institutions in the public interest.

Ultimately, Reich identifies some ways that both governmental incentives for private giving and foundations can be justified in and reconciled with democratic societies–though perhaps not exactly in their present forms. I found his arguments mostly if not entirely convincing, but more than that, I think he does a great service by presenting this as a question that needs to be asked, and attempting to give us a framework in which to talk about it. Too often, the “obvious moral good” of philanthropy can be used to distract us from taking a critical view on the specific ways it is enacted and incentivized in our society.

I’m really looking forward to reading Reich’s co-edited and even more academic collection, “Philanthropy in Democratic Societies.”

My Goodreads rating: 4 stars