In the current liberal discussion we hear the argument that our public services and political system is dysfunctional and broken. It should be replaced by something else, maybe more market-leaning. In this context also philanthropy is mentioned on occasion as example that wealth is not really an issue because many rich people donate their money for »good causes«. In doing so they perform certainly better than our public institutions do.
I think this is a misguided idea and a good example for how philanthropy often goes wrong is described in the article by Peter Savodnik on Mackenzie Scotts donations against racism:
»It’s not hard for a billionaire like Scott — in her effort to fight inequity or build a brand or out-give other billionaires — to wreak havoc on the itsy-bitsy organizations she showers with her largesse.«
Just because you are rich (and famous), does not give you any special insight into the human condition or the fate of the world. We also know, that many rich people are not necessarily intellectuals (as seen here) and their donations most likely will do more harm than good.
Even if we assume that the philanthropist is very intelligent, say, like Bill Gates, who also has reasonable ideas about the world and on top of that consults experts to guide his foundation, the question remains: who gave him the right to decide which problems of the world or a country deserve focus and which don't?
As soon as we allow individuals such a leverage over public health, public goods or the environment, the foundations of our open society is out the window. Philanthropy quickly becomes a form of patronising leadership or turns into oligarchy altogether. The best hope then remains, that these philanthropists/oligarchs are intelligent and well-meaning. Let's look forward to that, or, just to places where oligarchs have a say for a longer time, how that tends to work out ...
Thus the more likely outcome in the long run, are a bunch of incoherent ideas, from well-meaning ones like from the Bill Gates foundation to outright idiotic ones like colonising Mars or the universe or "uploading" our mind into a computer instead of fixing our planet.
This is — as a side remark — also an example of the flawed idea of many "progressives", believing, that just because they think they found and understood a problem (which they usually at best have partly) already gives them a clear pathway how to "solve" it. This is misguided. For good reason, some experts avoid the term problem altogether (in complex contexts) and use dilemma instead. Using the term problem leads people to believe there is a single solution (see e.g. Thomas Chermack, Scenario Planning in Organisations, and references there). The term dilemma on the other hand makes it clear, that there is usually no solution to such »problems« but just a meandering between different pathways where each one has potential benefits for some, harms for others and complex risks. A difficult navigation that should not be done by individuals but based on wide societal acceptance.
For my German audience, I made three podcast episodes to exactly that topic:
- Episode 27: Wicked Problems
- Episode 37: Probleme und Lösungen
- Episode 45: Mit »Reboot« oder Rebellion aus der Krise?