“Sometimes people call me an idealist,” President Woodrow Wilson once remarked. “Well, that is the way I know I am an American.”
From John Winthrop’s city on a hill speech to President Trump’s last State of the Union address, a desire to change the world for the better runs deep in our social mores and institutions. Our top universities promise to train the next generation to be global leaders, and businesses increasingly seek to be “socially conscious” and give back to society while turning a profit.
Perhaps nowhere is this idealism more clearly manifested than in our devotion to philanthropy and humanitarianism. In 2018, Americans gave nearly $428 billion to charity. At any moment, a multitude of nonprofit organizations across the nation are working to help the needy, raise awareness about important issues, and improve the lives of people in our nation and abroad.
As Alexis de Tocqueville famously observed, voluntary association, creative problem-solving, and private generosity are essential parts of our heritage, sown into the fabric of American life by the Constitution’s synthesis of freedom and virtue. We take pride in our humanitarian work, and rightfully so.
But there is a dark side to our desire to change the world. After all, as conservatives are wont to point out, things that are usually very good sometimes become very bad (corruptio optimi pessima). And a cursory glance at our nation’s history will tell us that American humanitarianism is no exception.
In the early 20th century, for example, many wealthy philanthropists—including Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller—supported eugenicist scientific research and public education that called for the elimination of “defective” classes of people through selective sterilization. Scholar of philanthropy William Schambra has observed: “Were it not for the niggling little fact that it is now understood to be an utter moral abomination, eugenics would be touted today as one of American philanthropy’s most significant and successful undertakings.”
How is it that American philanthropy—which literally means “love of mankind”—funded a movement that helped inspire Nazi barbarism? To answer that question, we need to explore the difference between humanitarianism and charity. Understanding this distinction will illuminate the perils of idealism gone awry and underscore the need for conservative realism to counteract its dangerous tendencies.
Missing the Trees for the Forest
The individuals and organizations that make up Big Philanthropy today cover a wide range of issues, causes, and concerns. But what unites these entities, and what distinguishes humanitarian activity from the virtue of charity, is the humanitarian’s interest in using private generosity primarily for social change.
Of course, whether the social changes envisioned are truly beneficial—objectively good—is often a live question. We can agree, for example, that increased access to clean water is a good change per se. Forced sterilization is not.
The problem is that humanitarianism, inasmuch as it aims at bringing about large-scale social change, is susceptible to what Edmund Burke called the “hocus-pocus of abstraction”—the technocratic quest to improve society based on a priori reasoning about man and society—while disregarding the dignity and liberty of individual persons and the wisdom of tradition. We might call this missing the trees for the forest.
Such farsightedness is endemic to progressive thinking. It’s no coincidence that so many revolutionary movements throughout history have marched under the banner of humanitarianism. In Burke’s day, French revolutionaries were willing to topple the social order and put hundreds of thousands to death in pursuit of an idealized future. For them, the calculus was clear and the trade-off worth it: Madame Guillotine was justified by the utopia to come.
In 1866, American political philosopher Orestes Brownson looked back on Burke’s historical moment and recognized the rise of the tyranny of good intentions. Curiously, Brownson argued that it was “under the influence of philanthropy [that] Europe became one vast slaughterhouse.”
Brownson saw that both philanthropists and philosophes are prone to replacing the concrete, personal love of neighbor—that is, charity—with an abstract, impersonal love for Humanity in general. While charity “addresses herself to the heart of man,” Brownson believed the humanitarianism of the philanthropists and philosophes was dangerous because of its technocratic inclinations. Philanthropy, wrote Brownson, “scorns small beginnings, and proposes always to commence operations on the masses.”
Crowding Out True Charity
When the technocratic impulse—the desire to “make the world a better place” through “social entrepreneurship” and “systems-level impact”—replaces the charitable impulse, philanthropists, politicians, and other leaders risk missing the trees for the forest. When that happens, the goal quickly drifts away from communitarian goods such as helping one’s neighbor and beautifying one’s place. It slips instead into an ideological hocus-pocus of abstraction, complete with self-congratulating mantras about improving humanity and a preoccupation with metrics at the expense of real people.
Thus we get, for example, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s decision to forego providing any direct assistance to the homeless people sleeping outside its $500 million headquarters in Seattle—while pledging to end homelessness everywhere by taking an “upstream…systems level” approach to the issue. Solving world problems took precedence over sorting out the problems in its own backyard.
What ought to alarm us most is that, when taken to its logical conclusion, abstract humanitarianism seeks power. Certain of the fundamental goodness and necessity of its totalizing vision, humanitarianism demands the centralized power to coerce the world into changing.
George Soros, for example, has funneled billions into promoting left-wing agitprop and destabilizing nations (like the United States) that stand in the way of leftist globalist governance—run, we can surmise, by experts free from attachment to national sentiment, culture, religion, and tradition. Of course, the 20th century provides ample examples of where this kind of thinking leads.
Historian Paul Johnson has written of Vladimir Lenin: “His humanitarianism was a very abstract passion. It embraced humanity in general but he seems to have had little love for, or even interest in, humanity in particular. He saw the people with whom he dealt, his comrades, not as individuals but as receptacles for his ideas.”
What Kind of Giving Is Truly Helpful
But if, as we’ve seen, conservatism is irreconcilable with the callous abstractionism of left-leaning philanthropy, what should a distinctly conservative vision of philanthropy look like? There is a great deal to be worked out in answer to this question—questions arise about the structure of community foundations, tax deductions, and other giving vehicles, for instance—but I will suggest that we can start by privileging people, places, and tradition in our giving.
By emphasizing the importance of local knowledge and gradual reform, and by tempering our philanthropic activity with the lessons of history on the limits of rational planning, conservatives can play a special role in keeping philanthropy tethered to charity and to the Tocquevillian vision of associational life.
Ultimately, a conservative approach to philanthropy should be linked to the Judeo-Christian tradition of almsgiving, in which charitable activity is seen not primarily as a tool for social engineering, but as a corporal work of mercy—a morally good (arguably even salvific) undertaking for both the giver and the recipient of the gift. Instead of treating people like cogs in the social machine—receptacles for our ideas about social engineering—the charitable model seeks to bring about personal encounters that meet clearly defined needs and that underscore our reliance on Providence and the biblical admonition to lay up treasure in heaven, in sharp contrast with the progressive philanthropist’s drive to produce heaven on earth—invariably, by raising hell.
If we want to keep American idealism from becoming a euphemism for technocratic elitism—and if philanthropy is to continue being the good thing it usually is in American life—then we must reject the ideological humanitarianism of the philosophes and modern progressives. We should infuse it instead with the logic of charity, which begins and ends with what is good for the human person rather than with abstract attempts to change the world.