“The Americans,” wrote Alexis de Tocqueville, “make associations to give entertainments, to found seminaries, to build inns, to construct churches, to diffuse books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; in this manner they found hospitals, prisons, and schools. If it is proposed to inculcate some truth or to foster some feeling by the encouragement of a great example, they form a society. Wherever at the head of some new undertaking you see the government in France, or a man of rank in England, in the United States you will be sure to find an association.”
The self-reliant impulse that Tocqueville witnessed in 19th-century America remains alive and well today. When confronted with a challenge, citizens continue to look to one another for a solution. Some of these efforts are famous; others, virtually unknown. But taken together, they help bind the nation, forming the dense web of associational life that we call civil society.
Indeed, in many instances, private individuals have taken it upon themselves to provide goods and services that would, in virtually any other country, be considered obvious public goods, to be provided by the state. And yet, so ingrained is this tradition of private, voluntary initiative that we Americans sometimes lose sight of how pervasive—and unusual—those efforts are.
In this issue of Philanthropy, we examine just a few of the many public services provided by private individuals—services that would elsewhere be assumed the sole province of government.
- Bernie Marcus has dedicated his life to helping people “do it yourself.” He co-founded the Home Depot in 1978, making a fortune by serving the American spirit of self-sufficiency. Today, he’s working to build nonprofits to the point where they no longer need his support. Throughout it all, he has created institutions—an aquarium, medical facilities, policy research institutes—that anywhere else would be left to government. Click here to read our profile of Bernie Marcus, winner of the 2012 William E. Simon Prize for Philanthropic Leadership, by Weekly Standard senior editor Andrew Ferguson.
- In cities from New York to San Diego, private donors have been integral to revitalizing public parks. Whether the park is beyond repair and requires an intervention, or whether it just needs a boost of philanthropic vision, or even if a city needs lots of new park space—private philanthropy is bringing top-notch management to America’s great urban parks. Evan Sparks reports on these donors here.
- Welfare, it is sometimes said, can only be effectively administered by the government. Charitable groups are too small, too disjointed, and too parochial to ever provide an adequate social safety net. Not so fast. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints runs a vast and effective social welfare system. Click here to read Naomi Schaefer Riley’s article on a how private individuals can administer a large-scale welfare system—that works.
- Houston is one of America’s most generous cities. Civic-minded business leaders, strong churches, and an entrepreneurial culture have combined to create the Texas Medical Center. Home to some of the world’s leading hospitals and research clinics, the TMC is now the size of a small (and growing) city. And it all came into being through private, voluntary initiative. Noted geographer Joel Kotkin explores this Texas-sized generosity here.
- The elegant classicism of the National Mall has long been a proper tribute to the great heroes of the republic. But a proliferation of new monuments has disrupted the Mall’s architectural harmony. When the proposed Dwight Eisenhower Memorial threatened to add yet more postmodern sprawl, Richard Driehaus pushed back. Click here to read a profile by the New Criterion’s James Panero.
There is much more in this issue of Philanthropy. We dedicate it to the many Americans whose labors, undertaken by choice and without regard for personal gain, do so much to enrich our collective life.