A critique of pure generosity, always assuming there is such a thing

The most useful of Slate’s recent spate of articles about philanthropy is David Nasaw’s review of 19th Century critiques of the oversized charitable act, which included some home truths that have gotten lost in the din of veneration surrounding rich men’s generosity–specifically, the capitalistic fact that those riches came out of the pockets of the rest of us.  Perhaps a cure for AIDS is more important than abiding by the anti-trust laws; but I’d like the public, rather than Bill Gates, to make that decision when it’s our money that got taken when Microsoft broke the law.

The rest of the Slate series, particularly Jacob Weisberg’s review of different styles of giving, makes me think of those commercials where daredevils perform impossible feats while the crawl across the bottom of the screen reads, "This is a professional–don’t try this at home."  While certainly one welcomes the attention of very wealthy people to social problems, perhaps a little adult supervision is in order.  Don’t the people at Google.org, for instance, understand that if social problems were profitable to fix someone would have fixed them already?  That what we’re dealing with in poverty, ignorance, disease and injustice are the byproducts of the free market–the results of its being in some people’s best interest to profit at the expense of others?

Capitalism may have won the battle with Marxism as an economic system; but you’d be hard-pressed to find something that can trump Marxism’s power as an analytical tool.


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One Response to “A critique of pure generosity, always assuming there is such a thing”

  1. Anita Bernstein Says:

    You’re right to say that if poverty were profitable to fix, it would have been fixed a long time ago. But it’s also true that bias and lack of imagination have caused enterprises to forgo relatively easy profit. They’re not nearly so rational and businesslike as they get credit for being.

    For example, a hundred years or so ago the telephone business lost millions by not marketing its product to households. The men running it hated the image of idle ladies phoning their friends just to chat, and insisted on catering to the macho telegraph operator barking his terse commands. Roger! Over! It took them decades to notice how dumb their stance was. Maybe the folks at Google.org or whatever can see a new way to make money in philanthropy.

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