This article was originally published in National Affairs. See NationalAffairs.com for more information.
In 2010, Vice President Joe Biden proclaimed, “Every single great idea that has marked the 21st century, the 20th century, and the 19th century has required government vision and government incentive.” Senator Ted Kennedy had a similar philosophy: “The ballot box is the place where all change begins in America.”
But despite these pronouncements, the American people are much better at taking care of themselves and fixing public problems than is the government. One reason is government’s propensity to tie itself in bureaucratic knots. A deeper explanation is that citizens are not modules to be marshaled, but rather beings who respond best when motivated by loyalty, love, and personal commitment. “[T]he little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections,” said Edmund Burke. “It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country and to mankind.”
Since its founding, the United States has sought equally to be a free society and a good society. This impulse drives our dual commitment to liberty and to shared responsibility. In order to meet our moral obligations to our fellow men and women without eroding the precious autonomy and independence of individual citizens, Americans have developed, over a period of 350 years, a unique culture of community organizations and philanthropy. This vast network of charitable aid has made our nation one of the most decent and fair in the world. What is less well understood is that this voluntary mutual aid is also indispensable to our freedom and capacity for self-government.
The Sources of Self-Rule
Civil society, charitable aid, and voluntary action sprang up in the United States even before government did. As the continent was settled, neighbors were frequently solving problems among themselves long before there were duly constituted agencies of the state. Nearly two centuries ago, Alexis de Tocqueville marveled in Democracy in America that,
Americans of all ages, all conditions, all minds constantly unite. . . . religious, moral, grave, futile, very general and very particular, immense or very small; Americans use associations to give fêtes, to found seminaries, to build inns, to raise churches, to distribute books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; in this manner they create hospitals, prisons, schools. Finally, if it is a question of bringing light to a truth or developing a sentiment with the support of a great example, they associate. Everywhere that, at the head of a new undertaking, you see the government in France and a great lord in England, count on it that you will perceive an association in the United States.
As the title of his book suggests, what impressed the French visitor about voluntary action in the United States was not just its ability to meet practical needs, but the way it exercised and built up the social muscles required if people were to govern themselves in a healthy democracy. Tocqueville considered American voluntary associations not just as signs, but as the source, of effective self-rule. He wished aloud that this American tradition could be transferred to Europeans, who had lost “the habit of acting in common” due to generations of smothering by the state. Some people, Tocqueville wrote,
judge that as citizens become weaker and more incapable, it is necessary to render the government more skillful and more active in order that society be able to execute what individuals can no longer do. . . . I think they are mistaken. . . .The more [the government] puts itself in place of associations, the more particular persons, losing the idea of associating with each other, will need it to come to their aid: these are causes and effects that generate each other without rest. . . .
The morality and intelligence of a democratic people would risk no fewer dangers than its business and its industry if the government came to take the place of associations everywhere. Sentiments and ideas renew themselves, the heart is enlarged, and the human mind is developed only by the reciprocal action of men upon one another.
It is these face-to-face interactions that build trust between individuals and confidence in a community’s ability to solve problems locally, working side by side with one’s neighbors toward shared goals.
But Americans’ longstanding confidence in this fundamental national formula was badly shaken by the Great Depression. Some members of the little platoons no longer felt up to taking on the challenges of modernity. Since then, our mechanisms for solving problems have spontaneously and voluntarily been called into question. As Richard Cornuelle wrote in his 1965 book Reclaiming the American Dream, the Depression planted the idea that “only the government seems big enough” to address serious social challenges. The resulting “habit of sending difficult problems to Washington quickly became almost a reflex.”
Cornuelle complained that we often now
speak of American life in terms of only two “sectors”: the public sector [government], and the private sector [commerce]. We leave out the third sector in our national life, the one which is neither governmental nor commercial. We ignore the institutions which once played such a decisive part in the society’s vibrant growth. . .[and] made it possible for us to build a humane society and a free society together.
This third sector, operating in the space between the individual and the state, between the coercion of law and the profit-seeking of commerce, goes by various names: civil society, the voluntary sector, charitable action. Back in 1970, the Peterson Commission pointed out the crucial need for “institutions standing outside the frame of government but in support of the public interest.” Cornuelle called these philanthropic institutions the “independent sector,” and warned that they have “a natural competitor: government. Both sectors operate in the same industry: public service and welfare.”
Cornuelle then suggested that “the quality of life in the U.S. now depends largely on the revival of a lively competition between these two natural contenders for public responsibility. The struggle would enhance the effectiveness of both.” Unfortunately, he observed, in some quarters
the very idea of competition with government is, by a weird public myth, thought to be illegitimate, disruptive, divisive, unproductive, and perhaps immoral. . . .Far from being illegitimate, lively competition with government is essential if our democratic institutions are to work sensibly. . . .
The government doesn’t ignore public opinion because the people who run it are naturally perverse. It isn’t wasteful because it is manned by wasteful people. . . . Without competition, the bureaucracy can’t make government efficient. . . .Reform comes only through competitive outsiders who force steady, efficient adjustment to changing situations. . . .
The independent sector will grow strong again when its leaders realize that its unique indispensable natural role in America is to compete with government. It must be as eager as government to take on new public problems.
A concrete example of this is the role that philanthropy is playing in improving American education by germinating charter schools. Donors have battled fiercely for the rights of independent social entrepreneurs to create charters. They have trained the principals and teachers manning the nearly 7,000 chartered institutions (compared to zero just two-and-a-half decades ago) that now compete with conventional public schools. They buy the buildings and put up the resources to write the curricula. In the process, philanthropists are not only directly transforming the lives of millions of children, but also pushing government-run schools to do a better job of serving millions more.
Philanthropy as an Alternative
Tyrannical rulers often feel threatened by philanthropy. That’s why authoritarian states like Russia and China have repeatedly shut down charities in recent years, out of fear that they might provide alternate sources of ideas, cultural solutions, and social legitimacy. Philanthropy practiced on a mass level, as in America, acts like a huge matrix of myriad private legislatures — setting goals and priorities, defining social ills, and methodically marshaling money and labor to attack them, all without asking the state’s permission. In this way, Americans are able to be producers of governance, not just passive subjects of governance carried out by others.
Despots hate philanthropy; they want the state to be the only forum for human influence and control. “Everything within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state,” was Mussolini’s encapsulation. To achieve this vision of total state control, independent associations and private wielders of resources must be co-opted or suppressed. The charitable sector is not only denied a seat at the table, it is put on the menu to be eaten. One of the first things every totalitarian government has done upon assuming power is to destroy charities, private giving, and voluntary groups.
Only the freest societies have had flourishing philanthropic sectors. In America, our right to expend charitable resources without supervision or control is ultimately protected by the First Amendment, which guards our freedom to assemble and act outside of government, to dissent, and to take heterogeneous, unpopular, or minority-supported action to redress grievances.
Enlightened, practical, democratic leaders shouldn’t just tolerate the independent actions of donors and volunteers — they should embrace and encourage them. Social entrepreneur Neerav Kingsland, who gained prominence after Hurricane Katrina by helping to build the nation’s most extensive web of independent schools in New Orleans, has argued that the most effective and humane thing that many public servants can do today to help needy populations is to let go of their monopolies on power. He uses the term “relinquishers” to describe progress-minded officials who are willing to transfer authority away from centralized bureaucracies in order to allow experimentation and improvement driven by philanthropy, commerce, grassroots activism, hyper-local governance, and other independent forces.
Just how quickly societal conditions can improve when tolerant relinquishers cede power to civil actors can be seen in New Orleans. After Katrina devastated the city, philanthropists were allowed to pour resources and expertise into restructuring the city’s schools. Government continued to provide funds, fair rules, and accountability, but it allowed independent operators, launched with philanthropic seed-funding, to take over the actual running of schools. The results speak for themselves. The number of classroom seats rated “high-quality” quadrupled in four years. The proportion of high-school students graduating on time leapt from 54% to 73%. The fraction of students showing adequate proficiency on state tests increased by half: 39% in 2004, 59% in 2014 (although the tests did change formats in that time). The ACT scores of graduating seniors hit a historic high.
Sharing responsibility for social improvement with philanthropists and volunteers in civil society will often be the most practical and speediest path to success that a government official can take. It is also the more democratic course.
Donors to the Rescue
Another reason to avoid overreliance on government is that governments periodically fumble or neglect their responsibilities altogether. Throughout American history, philanthropists have stepped in to right wrongs and organize solutions when this has happened. One prominent example is the civil-rights movement.
While some advocates would have you believe that improvements and extensions of civil rights are never made except by government, the truth is that government has often been the cause of problems in this area rather than the solution. In 1704 — when educating slaves was forbidden — private donors began setting up schools in New York City to instruct them on the quiet. In the early 1830s, when it was still a crime to teach a slave to read, private donors like Arthur Tappan helped found colleges for African Americans.
Less than two years after the bullets of the Civil War stopped flying, philanthropist George Peabody was distributing millions of his own dollars across the South to train teachers and set up schools without racial considerations so that freed slaves (along with white Southerners who couldn’t read) might get an education — despite the ferocious antipathy of state and local governments. In 1891, philanthropist Katharine Drexel gave her entire fortune (half a billion dollars in contemporary terms) to create a new religious order devoted to assisting blacks and Native Americans. She established 50 schools for African Americans, 145 missions and 12 schools for Native Americans, and the black college Xavier University in New Orleans. In these same years, government at all levels was doing little more than breaking promises to Native Americans and neglecting African Americans.
As the 20th century opened, hundreds of state and local governments were fiercely enforcing Jim Crow laws that stunted the education of blacks. But John Rockefeller was pouring money into his new program for providing primary education to African Americans. Then he boosted up 1,600 new high schools for black and poor white students. He eventually put almost $325 million of his personal fortune into the venture. Simultaneously, he was spending millions to improve the health and daily productivity of poor blacks and whites by nearly eliminating the hookworm that was then endemic in rural areas.
Numerous private givers followed the leads of Peabody and Rockefeller and donated millions of dollars to improve the education and social status of African Americans at a time when they had no friends in government. The philanthropic help came from groups like Anna Jeanes’s Negro Rural School Fund, the Phelps Stokes Fund, the Virginia Randolph Fund, and the John Slater Fund. These all continued their work until government finally caught up and started desegregating schools in the 1950s.
African-American children getting short shrift from the state received their biggest lift of all from philanthropist Julius Rosenwald. Starting in 1912, he donated the current equivalent of billions of dollars to build schoolhouses in hundreds of counties where black education was ignored. In less than 20 years, the Rosenwald program erected 4,977 rural schools and 380 companion buildings in most American communities with a substantial black population. At the time of Rosenwald’s death in 1932, the schools he had built were educating fully 27% of all African-American children in our country.
Many black civic, religious, and business leaders were nurtured by these philanthropic projects. Absent these private efforts by donors, improvement of conditions for African Americans and reconciliation in our country would have been delayed by generations. Government not only had little to do with this philanthropic uplift, but many arms of government did their very best to resist or obstruct it. And this is not just an artifact of history. Today, the most segregated and often most inadequate public schools in America are in Northern cities with activist governments: Detroit, Milwaukee, New York, Newark, Chicago, and Philadelphia. According to the UCLA Civil Rights Project, New York is the state with the country’s most segregated schools — thanks to New York City, where the proportion of schools in which at least 90% of the students are black or Hispanic rose sharply from 1989 to the present.
The government-operated schools in New York City pride themselves on their commitment to “social justice.” But it is private philanthropy that is shaking up the city’s complacent, ineffective educational establishment — by aiding parochial schools and launching charters. This year, there are 106,600 New York City children in charter schools, nearly all of them minorities and low-income, and 44,000 more sit on waiting lists. Stanford investigators and others find that these children are receiving significantly better educations than their counterparts in conventional government-run schools, in some cases outscoring comfortable suburban schools in annual testing. Yet donors and charterschool operators continue to have to fight the resistance of reactionary progressives in city hall and on the New York City Council.
American philanthropy has been of equal humanitarian importance overseas. In numerous cases, donors have rescued the vulnerable where government wavered or failed. For instance, when the U.S. Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire discovered that the Turks were starving and killing Jews in Palestine, he sent his urgent telegram to philanthropist Jacob Schiff in New York, not to the State Department. A fundraising committee was quickly set up. It distributed hundreds of millions of dollars donated by Jews living in the United States, saving many thousands of lives.
And it wasn’t only Jews who needed saving. At that same time, Muslims were carrying out a genocide against Armenian Christians that ultimately took 1.5 million lives. The United States government did little, but everyday Americans, missionaries, church members, and philanthropists sprang into action both to save lives immediately and then to sustain the Armenians dislocated by the genocide. Nearly 1,000 Americans volunteered to go to the region to build orphanages and help refugees. They assumed responsibility for 130,000 orphaned children, and rescued more than 1 million refugees.
It was a similar story when fascism swept Europe. The U.S. government dragged its feet and failed to swiftly organize any effective effort to save the Jews, gypsies, Christians, and others targeted by the Nazis. Private donors jumped in. The Rockefeller Foundation, for instance, established two special funds that, under the most difficult wartime conditions, relocated endangered individuals to Allied countries.
As with civil rights in America, this is not a story limited to the distant past. During the 1990s, when Western governments were pathetically slow and inadequate in their response to the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia that killed tens of thousands, the most effective actor by far was philanthropist George Soros. He used $50 million of his own money to insert a highly effective relief team into the city of Sarajevo while it was under siege. His venture re-established gas and electric service during the bitter winter, set up an alternate water supply, and brought in desperately needed supplies. It has been estimated that Soros’s gift saved more lives than the efforts of all national governments and the United Nations combined.
The list of beneficent interventions by philanthropy while government was nowhere to be seen could be expanded endlessly — from the Green Revolution and the invention of micro-lending abroad, to domestic achievements like the recovery of desolated urban parks, reductions in drunk driving, and the creation of the country’s best job-training programs for low-income populations. My colleagues and I at The Philanthropy Roundtable have just published The Almanac of American Philanthropy to document thousands of cases where donors improved human life in ways that public agencies had not.
Liberty and Goodness
The society our founders envisioned was both a free one with limited
government and one that took into account Judeo-Christian responsibilities
to our fellow man. As Richard Cornuelle wrote in Reclaiming the American Dream:
We wanted, from the beginning, a free society, free in the sense that every man was his own supervisor and the architect of his own ambitions. . . .We wanted as well, with equal fervor, a good society — a humane, responsible society in which helping hands reached out to people in honest distress, in which common needs were met. . . .We created a much wider variety of new institutions for this purpose than we built to insure political freedom. As a frontier people, accustomed to interdependence, we developed a genius for solving common problems. People joined together in bewildering combinations to found schools, churches, opera houses, co-ops, hospitals, to build bridges and canals, to help the poor. To see a need was, more often than not, to promote a scheme to meet it better than had ever been done before.
This dual devotion to liberty and goodness defined the American project and allowed it to succeed brilliantly. We need to remember how unusual our free and just society is. The degree of individual opportunity we enjoy in the United States had never been experienced by more than a sliver of the human race, and remains highly unusual today. Throughout history, the far more common (indeed nearly ubiquitous) pattern has been rule by a small caste of strongmen who take responsibility for society and its members, and in return basically tell everyone how to live. From monarchy to socialism to a blanketing welfare state, the usual pattern of government is a paternal fief where individual freedoms have been traded away in exchange for more predictable and secure lives. There are advantages to such a bargain: Every society has stronger and weaker members, and there will always be those who cannot or will not fend for themselves. Simply leaving stragglers behind to expire is not something that religious codes, moral traditions, or normal human empathy will allow. That’s why paternalistic governments have been the norm through history. Others are relieved of obligation or guilt when the strongman or state agency becomes responsible for the sick, the weak, and the hungry. To American ears, that’s a terrible tradeoff, but it’s one the vast majority of human societies have made.
It is voluntary action and private giving that have allowed America to escape that awful choice. By helping address basic needs and alleviate primal fears of a “jungle” freedom, philanthropy gave early Americans the confidence to launch a vast experiment in freedom from government intrusion. Today, private giving continues to enable us to meet humane responsibilities to our fellow man without setting in motion the paternalistic spiral that kills individual sovereignty in more statist countries. Philanthropy has thus enabled enormous liberty.
So private giving is not only a powerful social and economic lever. It is a crucial enabler of our political freedom. The little platoons that protect and enhance our communities are indispensable to both the vast success of our nation and the wide independence we enjoy as individuals, families, and communities.
Karl Zinsmeister is author of The Almanac of American Philanthropy, just published by The Philanthropy Roundtable, from which this essay is adapted.