Philanthropy Threatens Political Power

by Kevin D. Williamson


Natasha Lennard, who covers “non-electoral politics, general news and rabble-rousing” for Salon, argues today that civil-society programs on the David Cameron model are defective because charitable contributions fluctuate:

Tomes can and have been filled about the problems underpinning Cameron’s Big Society. One issue among many is that the charitable giving of the very wealthy is an inconsistent resource. As new findings by the Chronicle of Philanthropy show, major charitable gifts in the U.S. dropped by 30 percent in 2012. . . . The vagaries of major charitable donations are such that their targets and the amounts of money given can vary wildly based on the individual desires of a few very wealthy givers. Which points to the risk of policy frameworks, like Cameron’s Big Society, that place philanthropy at their heart.

(I do not think that problems underpin things — it seems to me they do the opposite of that — or that U.S. philanthropic habits are directly applicable to British policy questions, but never mind all that for now.)

If the problem is that charitable contributions fluctuate, I can’t help but notice that tax revenue fluctuates, too, in response to economic cycles. In fact, the unpredictable relationship between tax policy and tax revenue is one of our most intractable political problems. Which is to say, tax revenue is a similarly “inconsistent resource.” Ms. Lennard might apply her own line of reasoning to that question, but she is not making an honest inquiry; she is only looking for a reason to denigrate charity, which in the progressive mind is a threat to the holy welfare state.

Her argument is the sort that makes sense only if you see voluntary action as a threat to political compulsion, but that of course is precisely the case here. She goes on to criticize Warren Buffett and other billionaire philanthropists for making charitable donations to institutions other than the ones she would prefer. It would, of course, be much easier for the Natasha Lennards of the world to get their way if the Warren Buffetts of the world were not permitted to control as much of their own money.

Ms. Lennard has not taken the time to understand the broader context of conservative thinking about civil society — which is no surprise. It is also not clear that she comprehends the authoritarian implications of her own line of argument. Also, alas, no surprise: Progressives work very hard to avoid thinking about the authoritarian nature of their program.