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Just Giving: Why Philanthropy Is Failing Democracy and How It Can Do Better, Rob Reich

Reviewed by Gordon Arlen



In this groundbreaking monograph, Rob Reich provides the first book-length political theory of philanthropy. Against the widespread folk view that philanthropy is an unqualified good, Reich argues that certain forms of philanthropy can exacerbate inequality and threaten democratic ideals, unless they are subject to proper institutional control.

Reich moves beyond questions of personal ethics, which dominate most philosophical discussion of altruism, toward a more structural, institutional approach. He also shows that America’s current framework of tax-subsidized giving does not reflect all the ways philanthropy has functioned historically: the classical Athenian practice of compulsory giving through liturgies was as much about constraining wealthy donors as empowering them, and Reich notes that earlier reformers such as Anne-Robert Turgot and John Stuart Mill raised pointed criticisms of philanthropy. John D. Rockefeller tried and failed to get his foundation chartered by Congress, a drama vividly depicted in the book’s opening montage; the Gates Foundation attracts far less critical scrutiny, despite private assets that would outrank many countries in gross domestic product.

Reich argues that tax-subsidized philanthropy is essentially a spendi

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