There’s a difference between philanthropy and charity. One seeks social change; the other seeks love. And which one we choose reflects our worldview. I’ll explain, next on BreakPoint.
Listen Now | Download
When we hear about institutions like the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations or the Carnegie Endowment, it makes us think of things such as libraries, schools, and shows on NPR and PBS.
Americans think of major philanthropic institutions as forces for good, and for the most part, they are.
Yet many of these institutions have a dark past. It’s a past that can be traced to what one writer calls “philanthropy’s original sin,” the rejection of the Christian idea of charity.
This history was the subject of a recent article in the New Atlantis by William Schambra of the Hudson Institute. As he tells readers, the Carnegie and Rockefeller foundations were deeply involved in the eugenics movement that swept across the United States in the first third of the twentieth century.
As regular BreakPoint listeners know, eugenics is the attempt to “better” the human race through controlling fertility, selecting certain traits in offspring, and today, various levels of genetic engineering. It was the driving idea behind some of the worst violations of human rights in American history. As Schambra tells us, the big foundations helped make it possible, funding key programs not only in the United States but also “research institutions in Germany behind the Nazi programs of sterilization and euthanasia.”
Even after eugenics was discredited in the wake of World War II, the impulse to better the human race re-emerged, and those philanthropic foundations were there again, this time expressed in their support for the often-coercive population-control programs. The goal, as one Rockefeller Foundation official put it, was to make “the control of births” an “accepted responsibility of governments.”
Not surprisingly or unreasonably, the foundations insist that these troubling episodes in their history must be weighed against the good that they have done.
But they’re still left with what Schambra calls philanthropy’s “original sin”: the attempt to substitute charity, the love of neighbor, with the application of scientific expertise to human problems.
In the minds of would-be philanthropists, “Alexis de Tocqueville’s idea that America was ennobled by everyday, charitable citizens stepping forward to solve their own problems became less attractive than a new view of social change.”
Instead, they envisioned “centralized control” of philanthropy “in the hands of social technicians” that would “circumvent and diminish local ethnic, fraternal, and neighborhood groups and charities, which still took their bearings from benighted moral and religious orthodoxies rather than the new sciences of society.”
Not only was charity inefficient, it was pernicious: Margaret Sanger, a Rockefeller grantee, called old-fashioned charities the “surest sign that our civilization has bred, and is breeding. . . increasing numbers of defectives, delinquents and dependents.”
If philanthropy trampled human dignity in the process of social engineering, well, as Justice Holmes said in Buck v. Bell, “better for all the world.”
In contrast, charity, which comes from the Latin equivalent to agape, caritas, requires not only seeing the other person but identifying with his suffering. Philanthropy would never motivate someone to run towards plague victims while others ran away, but caritas often has.
Now don’t get me wrong: We should be grateful for the good libraries, schools, PBS shows, Car Talk and other positive causes funded by philanthropy. But, we must still extend to our brothers and sisters “that loving personal concern [which] is at the heart of charity traditionally understood.” And, as Schambra reminds us, “It can only be practiced immediately and concretely, within the small, face-to-face communities that Tocqueville understood to be essential to American self-government.” Not by some grand scientific intervention.