This article originally appeared on the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy blog.
Anand Giridharadas’s splendid book, Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, is a must-read for anyone interested in current trends in philanthropy.
You get to share a limo ride with Darren Walker, the President of Ford Foundation, as he calibrates his message to a titan of private equity. You listen to Bill Clinton articulate the win-win philosophy behind “doing good while doing well” that shaped social good globalism of the Clinton Global Initiative and the proliferation of corporate sponsored conferences and other festivals that promote and celebrate efforts to improve society through market forces.
Giridharadas’s provocative take on MarketWorld, as he calls it, indicts elites who seek to change the world as long as there is no question about their own status or the harms they inflict by accumulating wealth the way they do. Giridharadas’s conversation with Andrew Kassoy perhaps sums up the gist of the book.
Kassoy is the founder of B Lab that gave rise to the benefit corporation movement, allowing companies to pursue goals to benefit society in addition to the financial bottom line. There are now hundreds of these companies including Ben and Jerry’s and Kickstarter.
Kassoy and Giridharadas both wonder whether it might have been better to forego the win-win world of B Corporations, the universe of which is still quite small, and instead enter the contentious realm of law and politics. It is through this more conflictual arena where power clashes can limit the harm that the many more conventional companies cause through their impact on the environment, public health and workers’ welfare.
In the less genteel world of law and politics, we are all at least nominally equal as citizens and our impact is not tied to our net worth. But here the key word is “nominal.” Just like there is the idealized version of the market that efficiently allocates resources to where their social return is highest, so there lurks in Giridharadas’s masterful reportage an ideal notion of a liberal democracy where the encounter of interests and passions generates justice for and by common folk.
Clearly there is a profound choice between a plutocracy modified by privately conceived social improvement schemes and democratic institutions where we all engage each other as equals. To drive home the fact that too many progressives have bought into grand global schemes fueled by wealthy elites, Giridharadas gets off the street and visits universities.
He speaks to Dani Rodrik at Harvard to understand how the global ambitions of rootless elites have bred the resentments of rooted commoners. And hence Brexit and the rise of Trump, which has been widely touted in the promotion of the book but is really a minor part of the learning in this book.
It weaves together investigative journalism with inquiries of scholars, revealing Giridharadas’s formation as a student of Michael Sandel at Harvard. Among others, he also consults with Aaron Horvath and Walter Powell of Stanford and Chiara Cordelli of the University of Chicago to ground himself in the very purpose of a rights-based democracy.
No one should value being someone else’s social improvement project as much as they should value seizing their own rightful place as subservient to no one, with full dignity to make what they will of their life and the public sphere to which each citizen has as much right as any other.
His is a forceful and compelling call to seize our rights as citizens and to engage in social improvement through public institutions, not the private substitutes that reflect the compromised motives of billionaires and corporations. This vital warning can easily wane as the patronage of great wealth also creates many clients, like the lords of yore had many vassals. But regardless of their relatively elevated status, even vassals did not have the habit of independence and self-determination that we associate with citizens. Their primary consolation was to be superior to peasants.
But in the promotion of the book, Giridharadas is mistaken when he equates philanthropy with vassalage. Surely, as we study philanthropy we are not seeking to build a concierge class to do the bidding of our wealthier compatriots. Rather, we engage leaders who understand that generosity plays a key role in genuine public spiritedness, without which few institutions can thrive.
We have too many examples of nominally egalitarian institutions seized by tyrants and demagogues, cynically mouthing ideals of human dignity to preserve their positions. There is not much of a choice if it is between a benevolent commissar and a kind plutocrat.
Ideals of equal participation are no less susceptible to corruption than are ideals of enlightened autocracy. Most of us would choose the former ideal, but in practice it requires that we carefully choose our leaders and the elites who will govern.
We must be critical with our own philanthropy and in gauging it in others. We hope our institutions and the public-spiritedness of our fellow citizens will prevent any one elite from entrenching itself and serving its own purposes at the expense of the public. But we do need elites to function.
Beyond the scale of a town hall, we need to select elites to represent us. They are the “winners” we select for a limited time to achieve a specific purpose. We don’t intend to elevate them permanently. Our representatives are supposed to serve us as are the technocrats who administer the complex machinery of government that answers to us. But in the end it is our choice. We do ultimately select the winners who reflect who we are.
Eugene R. Tempel Dean