Best of Both Worlds?

One of my two questions behind this blog is “What is the role of philanthropy in a democratic society?” I struggle with the idea that philanthropy, with its privileging of the perspective of a particular donor and her/his trustees, has a fundamentally undemocratic element.

At the same time, I’m sure that, against the tendency of the day to conflate the two, that democracy and the market are not automatically compatible – that in some respects they are in fundamental contradiction.

But I’m wondering, what if philanthropy, with its counter-majoritarian tendencies, is a corrective to both the market and democracy?

Let me explain. I think people want to say democracy and the market are compatible because both are about the will of the majority. Get more than 50% of the votes, you get to be President. This creates a “mandate.” Or something. In the market, if a product or service becomes popular, passes some kind of tipping point of adoption, it wins. I don’t know how well Google Plus is doing, but I know I haven’t been on it in at least a week, and I spend at least 20 minutes a day on Facebook. People go where the people are; winners keep winning; you have to have money to make money; etc. “Massification” is an important dynamic in market economies – we call it “scaling” in the nonprofit sector.

Philanthropy has counter-majoritarian tendencies, in two ways.

One of the main roles often ascribed to philanthropy is to be a “laboratory” for social programs. Private funders can take chances on risky new ventures, and when they prove their mettle, promote them to public funders and ask that they be adopted as part of public policy. So goes the theory.

There’s something counter-majoritarian about this. Nobody put it to a vote whether paying people to stay in school was a good idea before cities like New York City tried it. But it may turn out to be a good thing.

The other way philanthropy can be counter-majoritarian is in protecting the rights of minorities. Foundations like Gill and Arcus fund LGBT rights, and with a lot of actors and advocates pushing, pushing, pushing in municipalities and states over many years, as well as in popular culture, the needle starts to move on majority acceptance of gay marriage. The funders are far from the only actors promoting this, but they’re part of a movement and help fuel it. To protect the rights of a minority.

The first of these roles is about correcting market failures, the second is about correcting, I guess you could call them democratic failures.

So perhaps one of the roles of philanthropy in a democratic society is precisely to be counter-majoritarian. It’s undemocratic on one level, but on another, it’s about perfecting democracy. Hunh.


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One Response to “Best of Both Worlds?”

  1. The Blog Briefly Known as "Democratizing Philanthropy?" » Blog Archive » Cuts Both Ways Says:

    […] The Blog Briefly Known as "Democratizing Philanthropy?" BETA version, new title in the works. New post each Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday (for now). « Best of Both Worlds? […]

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