Home > Political equality and influence > The problem with philanthropy

The problem with philanthropy

We can all agree that money should not buy political power. The integrity of the political process is undermined if people can use their wealth to decide what laws will be passed or which policies will be pursued. Philanthropy does not involve the use of state power, but it raises a similar issue, in so far as those with economic power get to decide what projects will be funded (like which diseases will be subject to research, etc). This use of economic resources is a form of political power.

Peter Wilby makes this point in a good piece in the Guardian today:

So billionaires, not the democratically elected and (at least theoretically) accountable representatives of the people, get to decide on the good causes. Those who already wield enormous economic power can determine social priorities too.

This leaves me with mixed feelings about philanthropy. On the one hand, as Wilby comments:

Far better that they open their wallets to deserving causes than that they spend yet more money on yachts, carbon-emitting private jets or garish mansions.

Seems like common sense. But it raises questions about political equality. A choice to buy a yacht (while more selfish) can be seen to be an individual choice and does not have an effect on broader social priorities. By contrast the choice of the philanthropist can have great impact on others, if it determines which illnesses are most likely to be cured. As Richard Bellamy points out in his book Political Constitutionalism, inequalities in wealth do not lead to a form of domination if a person uses his money to ‘indulge a taste for classic cars,’ but do ‘when the wealthy man is able to influence public affairs more than the poor simply on account of his wealth.’ If we accept that the choices made by a philanthropist engage ‘public affairs,’ then this leads us to the slightly odd conclusion that billionaires should stick to buying yachts rather than funding good causes. The former does not violate the principle of political equality, while the latter arguably does. Yet this is a clearly unattractive position.

My conclusion is first that philanthropy cannot be a substitute for government action and democratically determined goals. Secondly, it highlights the problem with gross inequalities in wealth and whether such inequalities can ever be kept separate from the political sphere.

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