Pluralism in Question
In January we were pleased to host ARD, Germany’s most viewed television news channel. They were doing a feature on philanthropy in America and were fascinated by the often heroic measures Americans take to help each other, and the pervasiveness of our giving and voluntary behavior. As our professor Greg Witkowski will tell you, Germany has the world’s second largest nonprofit sector, after the U.S. Yet the differences are striking, as the public sector plays a much larger role in Germany.
We provided context for the stories the ARD was preparing to share with the German public. As we talked it became apparent that despite their admiration for the great energy, variety, and multiplicity of Americans’ associational life, as well as our generosity with money and time, they were disappointed that U.S. outcomes were not closer to Germany’s. Take health and education as just two examples. Germany does not need charity hospitals (health insurance is compulsory and everyone is covered) and higher education tuition is free. For all the vigor and engagement of the talented citizenry in the U.S., in our visitors’ eyes, it seemed that philanthropy, though remarkable, was an inferior substitute for a more robust public sector.
Our visitors still saw the great social pluralism Tocqueville observed, but decided that the regime back home was better at helping society’s least fortunate. Much has changed on both sides of the Atlantic in the almost 200 years since Tocqueville came to our shores. But what has not changed is Americans’ commitment to pluralism.
One of the virtues of pluralism is the free and open circulation of people and opinions as they flow into and out of a variety of roles, responsibilities and organizations crafted by their participants, not by overarching authorities. Organizations fluidly form to deal with issues, combining talents in responsive ways, going away when they are no longer needed. Innovation, participation, and meaningful community connections are some of the envisioned results. Experiments that work on the ground are recognized and emulated by communities in other places. Multiple, moving centers of authority engender the kind of questioning and probing that is often unwelcome by established authorities, which allows for new knowledge to emerge and flourish.
In the economy, pluralism leads to entrepreneurial creation that could be quashed by a jealous or greedy state. In politics, we don’t need to envision utopian equality, since elites appear destined to concentrate power in their hands. However, as the seminal scholar Robert Dahl wrote, in pluralistic societies elites have to compete for our support. So they circulate into and out of power and don’t become entrenched and authoritarian as a single ruling class.
The open pluralistic society is a compelling vision, one where the philanthropic instinct plays a direct role, less mediated by the public sector. But is American pluralism as practiced still the shared vision for our nation? Is organized philanthropy an inferior substitute for a larger or more effective public sector? These are big questions that we are engaging in somewhat surprising ways through our current presidential election process.
A related set of questions affects the fundamental pluralism of philanthropy. Is philanthropy generating valuable experiments that can be emulated by others or adopted by government? Is philanthropy providing enough competition among elites and opportunities for participation, both in terms of those who decide on giving and those who receive large amounts of funding?
Another key question about the pluralistic context goes back to our German friends. They see the U.S. struggling to provide access to healthcare and education for all of our citizens. Absent a wholesale transfer of responsibility to the public sector, we have a lot of work to do. If we want to preserve and advance pluralism in our society, philanthropy will need to play a leading role. It will have to do a better job of including those who have not been reaping its benefits and taking part in decisions. Addressing the question of pluralism will rely on embracing greater inclusion and diversity as a priority.