Book Review – Rob Reich’s “Just giving: Why philanthropy is failing democracy and how it can do better”

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Book review: Reich, Rob (2018). Just giving: Why philanthropy is failing democracy and how it can do better. Princeton University Press.

This review was reproduced and edited from my old website.

Rob Reich’s “Just giving” examines the favourable tax treatment of donations (in Singapore, for example, the tax deduction for qualifying donations is 250 per cent), the definition of the non-profit sector for both public charity and private foundations, as well as the limits of philanthropy. He does so by offering a political theory of philanthropy guided by the theories of liberty and justice under democratic settings, and Reich works to identify the type(s) of institutional arrangements which should define and structure philanthropy.

With the goal of supporting a strong liberal democracy and promoting justice, especially the equity of opportunities, his central argument is that philanthropy needs to be properly defined and structured through social norms, legal rules, and public policy. In other words:

“The design of institutions, formal and informal, matters a great deal for what counts as philanthropy, how philanthropy is practised, who its beneficiaries are, and how it relates to the state. Philanthropy is not an invention of the state but an artefact of it.”

Therefore, Reich questions the oft-unquestioned deference to and praise of philanthropy, when it could be an apparent menace to the welfare or a society. Instead, he frames philanthropy as a form or an exercise of power, which converts private assets into public influence. The present legal design in the United States, from which many other countries take guidance, facilitates this exercise of power given the low accountability of foundations, the lack of transparency, the protection of donor intent in perpetuity, and the tax-advantaged or tax-subsidised regimes.

It should not be taken for granted, moreover, that those in need receive the most assistance. He argued: “Rather than asking about the purposes of charity and power of philanthropists, we tend instead to celebrate donors, large and small, for their generosity. We ought however to be asking, what is the role of philanthropy in a liberal democratic society, and what role should philanthropy play?”

And in considering the ethical and political dimensions of philanthropy, Reich further problematises the status quo and emphasises the need to rectify philanthropy’s failings by changing the policies and institutions which shape it. Donors should not only be cognisant of public displays of generosity, “Just giving” adds, but also pay attention to the outcomes of charity and philanthropy.

Because even if philanthropic foundations are ultimately justified by promotion of pluralism (“diminishing government orthodoxy and decentralising the definition and distribution of public goods”; in other words, empowering non-government actors to provide assistance or directly helping the underserved) and discovery (“taking risks in social policy experimentation and innovation”; in other words, funding new programmes and interventions), continued scrutiny of their existence are necessary safeguards.

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