Economic and Social Vigilantism: Philanthropy or Policy-Making?

“Their influence is growing in tandem with their largess, shifting power away from democratic institutions.”


An opinion piece by David Callahan recently published in the New York Times (READ HERE) brought this question to the forefront of my mind: Is private intervention–that’s publicly acknowledged–the future of how policy is shaped in our country?

I, for one, am not in favor of such a high degree of “economic or social vigilantism,” primarily because, as the article states, private funds report to no voters, and non-profit organizations generally represent “slivers of interest” from mega-givers seeking to influence public policy. There have been numerous (literally hundreds) of recent examples where private dollars look public outcry in the face and say “eh, too bad.” (Were you aware of Baltimore’s eye-in-the-sky? I bet not! Follow this link to read more.)

It’s as if America is Gotham, and people like Jeff Bezos or Bill Gates are being depicted in a Batman-esque fashion; what we “need but do not deserve” to intervene in a broken system. Initiatives taken on by private entities or individuals, for example, to donate to clean water resources in Flint, MI, are obviously great/necessary, but thinking beyond the relief effort–what are the negative consequences?

Increased public distrust of the government because they slash funding instead of simply providing clean, freaking water?

Increased power (it’s already superior) of the private dollar versus the public one?

Will democratic institutions ENTIRELY erode and instead succumb to the sociopolitical views of the wealthy few?

Will dollars from private donors, despite being tabbed as “progressive” or “conservative,” ultimately just lead to more ideological subterfuge?

Imagine a socialist reliance on Mark Zuckerberg and a conservative party overtly led by the Koch brothers. “Dark money” would be unveiled from the shadows and instead be called upon to advance either side’s agenda and govern the political atmosphere. Politics in America have never NOT been influenced by crooked dollars (thanks Boss Tweed), but it may already be at the point where our citizens would rather see those dollars go at it in the public forum, unabashedly, Ali v. Frazier style. The argument could be made, surely, that this would be more favorable [or effective?] than our current system.


Philanthropy not tied to political influence/advancement of an agenda (this may be my naivety allowing such a notion to exist) is something I encourage. Maybe there is no such thing as non-political philanthropy. But giving for a return (e.g. tax breaks), is becoming all too common. A careful balance, and more transparency, must be struck on private giving. It could give way to a much bigger problem–although I’m sure anyone could be better at playing Batman than Ben Affleck.

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