Tag Archives: philanthropy

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.