Depending on the Kindness of Oligarchs

A recent op-ed in the New York Times considered the implications of some impending philanthropy–a gift of a new park.

[The] park will be just offshore in the Hudson River, largely financed by the media mogul Barry Diller and situated, conveniently, a short walk from his office in Chelsea.

The new park will also be near the High Line, allowing for an easy tour of how private wealth is remaking the city’s public spaces. This trend isn’t unique to New York: Philanthropists are also busy reshaping the riverfront of Philadelphia and building a green corridor through Houston. In Tulsa, Okla., a vast new park system is being financed in part by the billionaire George B. Kaiser.

David Callahan, the author of the op-ed and the editor of Inside Philanthropy, readily acknowledges the admirable generosity of donors like Mr. Diller. But he also worries that the increasing reliance on private philanthropy to replace–rather than supplement–funding previously supplied through taxes and subject to democratic decision making is, in his words,  “more evidence of how a hollowed-out public sector is losing its critical role, and how private wealth is taking the wheel and having a growing say over basic parts of American life.”

In New York, while philanthropists have lavished money on parks adjacent to their neighborhoods, declining public revenues have left parks in poorer precincts in considerable disrepair.

The design, placement and maintenance of parks were once a function of democratic processes. Now, as a citizen, you feel like a spectator to largely privatized decision making. A declining public sector, burdened by budget cuts, creates a vacuum for imaginative civic leadership that is being filled by a new class of Medicis.

Medicis–an apt descriptor.

I have often explained to students the different functions of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. The question answered by the Bill of Rights is procedural: it answers the fundamental question who decides? Who gets to decide issues of basic individual liberty–what religion you practice, what book you read, what street you can stroll down, who you marry? In our system, I explain, those personal decisions–good or bad– are supposed to be made by individual citizens, not by the state. The Constitution, on the other hand, sets out rules applicable to collective decision-making; it assumes wide participation in a democratically-shaped civic life.

Oligarchy, on the other hand, does not rely on wide participation. Its definition:  “A form of government in which all power is vested in a few persons or in a dominant class or clique; government by the few.”

Receipt of largesse–no matter how well-intended–is not a characteristic of a free and equal society. When you are the beneficiary of someone else’s charity, rather than a citizen entitled to enjoyment of public goods, you live in a feudal society.

Like Blanche in “Streetcar Named Desire” who always depended on the kindness of strangers, we peons increasingly depend upon the beneficence of oligarchs.


  1. John Schnatter (Papa John’s Pizza) donated millions to build the University of Louisville football stadium. He’s also outspoken about his unwillingness to provide health care to his employees. It’s good to be king.

  2. And we, the taxpayers, often pay for the privilege of continued empowerment of the oligarchs. We build the infrastructure to support “economic development”. The roads, water, sewer, lights, waste disposal, fire and police protection all come at our expense, especially when the developers get huge tax abatements. And guess who gets the contracts to build the infrastructure. Then, the business developers want control of education so that they don’t have to invest in training their workforce. Guess who pays, again. All this support continues, coming at the expense of the taxpayers/employees who are taking home less and less while expected to produce more and more for the employer. It would be bad enough if all the profits from this development might eventually trickle down to benefit communities. Instead, the oligarchs who have globalized their risk (and profits) owe allegiance to no one but themselves and their heirs, continue to amass wealth in unprecedented amounts, buying the media and political power so those lowly taxpayers are kept uninformed, happily distracted and placated with crumbs.

  3. Of course I dan’t disagree with the thrust of this article, but we should not forget that our own cities behave in analogous ways. Some years ago the Chicago Sun-Times had a front-page article (it may have been the start of a series) contrasting the support given by Chicago (then ruled by `the real’ Mayor Daley!) for parks on the north side compared to the south side. With pictures.

    I have noticed the condition of the park in Indianapolis where Robert Kennedy spoke the night ML King was murdered, and it contrasts poorly with what I see in the trendy downtown.

  4. Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. Lord Acton was right. It doesn’t matter much the circumstances. None of us become better people based on having power, from whatever the source, over others. Power distorts one’s view of the human race.

    Now power is different than responsibility. Being able and willing to accept being accountable for accomplishment that affects others is not having power over them but rather accepting their interests as your own.

    Bill and Melinda Gates are good examples of the distinction between power and responsibility I think. I’m sure that many act deferential towards them because of theiur wealth, potential power, but I’ve always had the impression that they are not about getting their way but giving the world our way, less encumbered by ignorance, disease, famine, etc.

    Philanthropy can be about power rather than responsibility. Getting one’s name prominently displayed so people know that the giver beat them in the resource pool.

    We, the people, typically should accept public gifts with only acceptable strings attached. (Although the “stringy” kind are more prevalent.) Why not? But we should always keep in mind that extreme wealth distribution is a typically costly failure of human institutions.

    The slow but may well be inevitable slide of democracy into oligarchy is just one cost.

    Beware of wealth bringing gifts. Look closely for the strings. Sometime they require critical thinking to unravel the long term implications.

    The American way rewards taking responsibility but tries to deny power as the antithesis of freedom. The Great Oligarchy Plot’s reaction to President Obama’s responsibility can be seen as evidence that they only know power.

    Democracy and our Constitution establish strict limits on power and effective guidelines for responsibility. Let’s go home with who brung us to the dance.

  5. To put a slightly different spin on the contributions of oligarchs, now comes George Lucas who wants to built a huge edifice to himself, a “Star Wars Museum”, on the Chicago lakefront, which will probably serve as an affront to many people. Despite the interesting design, it’s still about a movie and movie director, not something a bit more important, sublime or lasting. It’s been called a “palace of Jabba the Hut”. (See If you have the money, money is power to do whatever fool thing you want on a scale bigger than any other fool with a lot less.

  6. We probably would not need philanthropists or a pass the hat if the Oligarchy was really taxed, and not allowed all their deductions, off shoring of profits, off shoring of jobs, etc. Add into the toxic brew all the direct and indirect subsidies received such the Colts and Pacers to name only two.

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