Friday, February 19, 2010

Capitalism Cop-out?

I've never met a Tea-Partier, but if I did, I think I'd ask his or her opinion on philanthropy. Decidedly anti-socialist, I know the Tea-Party has a strong stance against government spreading the wealth around. But I wonder how they feel about capitalism doing the same thing.

Capitalism's venue of wealth-spreading is a result of its beneficiaries sharing their wealth with the less fortunate (or depending on how conservative you are, the less able) through their philanthropic donations. I imagine the Tea Party people wouldn't have a problem with this form of wealth-spreading, as it's nicely explained through market forces. Because they don't take issue with philanthropy, it makes me think I should. (As much as I hate the culture wars, they are pretty crazy.)

Philanthropy, after-all, may just be a convenient way to justify (or at least, minimize) the excess and greed of our society. Micheal Edwards, a guest blogger at Philanthropy Central, calls philanthropy the "path of least resistance" for our consumer society. Georgia Levenson Keohane, writing at the Center for Effective Philanthropy on the banking industry, says that "charitable giving is no substitute for sector reform."

So what am I doing here, discussing the intricacies of philanthropy, when charitable donations only justify the corporate greed at the heart of the American society? My employer, a community-health center, occasionally receives in-kind donations from a local Wal-Mart. Essentially, these "gifts" are the rejected, returned, or damaged goods the store can no longer sell. Instead of tossing them into the trash, Wal-Mart donates them and lets us deal with it. Are charitable donations just the equivalent: Spill-over from the capitalist machine, given away to the losers of the economic game as an after-thought?

Well, it might have been at one point, but now, I'm not so sure. There are still organizations and individuals who operate under that paradigm (see my Wal-Mart example above), but those are becoming the minority. I see philanthropy (or more broadly, civil society) not as a by-product of capitalism, or in conflict with it, but as an integrated part of the economic sphere. As charitable donations come more and more from individuals in small increments, and those individuals start to see what those donations really are (social investments), it will be clear that social change is the foundation of any economic system. Corporations can even benefit from it.

Of course, I could be wrong. Then let's hope President Obama actually is a socialist, otherwise nothing will ever get done.

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