If We Talk About the Democratic Problems with Philanthropy, We Should Talk About the Limitations of Democracy

Hear this article read aloud here!

Read the appendices for more explanation.

Author’s Note: this post based on an old Discord conversation

The question of whether or not large-scale philanthropy is undemocratic seems to have become more popular in the last year or so. There are some arguments specific to the situation of current US philanthropy, which make reasonable points in both directions. The defender of big philanthropy in a democracy can say that our government’s current public spending is shaped by democratically popular opposition to the government spending large amounts of money on certain types of causes, such as foreign aid, even if these same people believe private philanthropy in these areas is morally good. Removing large private philanthropy changes the terms public spending is decided on without regard for the public endorsement of these terms. In a sense, there is a democratic sanction for big philanthropy and against its opponents. The opponent might point to specific policies which give tax breaks to philanthropists for a wide range of philanthropic activities, meaning that the public is functionally subsidizing private philanthropy. In this sense, there is public spending that moves in accordance with the will of the unelected few.

The more abstract version of the conversation is robust to both of these objections, since each is rooted in a changeable situation. The public could be convinced that big philanthropy is undemocratic and revoke their approval of it, and the government could stop giving tax breaks for private philanthropy. The question remains of whether large-scale private philanthropy has a place in a properly democratic society. It seems hard to oppose philanthropy in the case of small-scale donations without biting some rather unpleasant bullets about the limitations of activism. Large-scale philanthropy seems different however, since access to the opportunity for changes on this scale isn’t shared by most citizens (unlike, say, donating $10 per month or other small sums), and can have major effects on the landscape of the world, who gets helped, even which policies get implemented.

Allowing large-scale programs you think should be handled by the government to be controlled by a few powerful people… that seems democratically fishy at least. As an Effective Altruist, charitable organizations and donations are a huge moral concern of mine. I am even sympathetic to the extremes of the “Famine, Affluence, and Morality” conclusion on these matters, and say that the entire composition of our moral duties has changed almost beyond recognition due to the current capabilities of charities, to an extent most people, myself included, aren’t prepared to live up to.

While much of my concern is about small-scale philanthropic spending, the only sort I have the money to engage in, it is also true that many big donors are influenced in their spending to at least some degree by various Effective Altruist ideas, including Bill Gates, Melinda Gates, Cari Tuna, Dustin Moskovitz, and Elon Musk. The Effective Altruist Scott Alexander has written a defense of large-scale philanthropy of this kind in his article “Against Against Billionare Philanthropy”. In my opinion his arguments on the scale of individual ethics make some very significant points, on the topic of collateral damage particularly, while his arguments on government show an irreverence to political philosophy, ranging from distracting to self-undermining at points. The theoretical side of the democratic objection seems noticeably underdiscussed.

Coming from a direction that takes a more general view of democracy is RadicalXChange economist Glen Weyl’s recentish criticism of Effective Altruism and related movements “Why I’m Not a Technocrat”. Although I find the specific points this article makes about Effective Altruism and other modern movements to often be poorly argued and poorly informed (Robert Wiblin criticized some of these problems shortly after the article’s release), his broader points about the epistemic problems with technocracy in movements are serious, and at times quite relevant to Effective Altruism.

Both of these articles at times feel frustrating and, the latter one especially, condescending (a sin I don’t doubt my own article will be more than a little guilty of), but neither holds a candle to the response to Alexander’s article, “Against Against Against Billionaire Philanthrocapitalism” by “Ch”. This article is constantly condescending to the point of hostility, and as a result nearly unreadable for those who disagree with the points being made, or think his interpretations of Alexander’s arguments are flawed. An example quote:

“…and if you don’t think that the government has been ‘reformed’—exclusively for the benefit of the Chamber of Commerce and the investor/ownership class, mind you—then you are clearly a simpering idiot, and no one should pay attention to anything you have to say ever again.”

Its central accusation of Alexander being a “neo-feudalist” because he thinks its fine if a minority has discretion over spending that both articles admit is a miniscule fraction of the spending of the government1 is transparently either an act of drama so broad as to provide cover for real neo-feudalism, conspiracy theory, or just old-fashion bad faith. Still, it focuses more on the political dimension than the Alexander article, and points out some of the statements in it that are dismissive of political theory to a nearly absurd degree, such as Alexander’s offhanded comparison of his relationship to an ineffective government with the Church of Scientology, or his statement that he feels “represented” when Elon Musk spends money on rockets. I should add, though I don’t intend to interact with it much, that Alexander posted a follow-up to his article that improves a couple of his points, though still fails to interact with the political issues in a way I think most critics would find satisfying. I am not planning, at least here, to write a full critique of each article. All I will give you for going into them are a few grains of salt. I should add that while I have a great deal of prior respect for Scott Alexander and Glen Weyl, I only know about the other article because Nick showed it to me. While I think it isn’t totally lacking in redeeming values, it will take more effort for me to be charitable to Ch than the others, and, though I don’t pretend to consider it a steelman of the critics of billionaire philanthropy, it will figure as the primary antagonist of this post.

I should also add that, although I won’t directly interact with his work, it is my understanding that the current conversation in this area owes much to Rob Reich, who is the main figure Alexander is interacting with in his article. I hope to read his book on this topic some day, it’s possible it touches on some of my points and would likely be more of a steelman than Ch, but at the least I can recommend this interview with him as a nice overview of some of the concerns he helped bring to the table. Anand Giridharadas is another one who is brought up in both Ch and Weyl’s pieces, but I won’t interact with him as I have yet less familiarity with his contribution. My extremely second-hand and possibly-extremely wrong impression is that his contribution is roughly a cross between a better version of Ch’s points and a worse version of Reich’s.

The degree of disagreement along the Alexander/Ch line is also a bit confusing, as they are vindictive about different, non-contradictory things, and even seem reasonably willing to concede the other’s major interest (Ch, the responding party, is the one deserving blame insofar as this is a problem). From Alexander:

“Criticize the existence of billionaires in general, criticize billionaires’ spending on yachts or mansions.”

From Ch:

“The argument is not—repeat NOT—that the wealthy shouldn’t donate some of their money to worthy causes.”

So can we agree that criticizing billionaires is fine but criticizing them just because they’ve donated to important causes doesn’t make sense? And as for Alexander and Reich, well, for one thing, this is from Alexander’s article:

“I agree with all of this (and am now confused about to what degree Reich and I disagree at all)”

Not to mention Alexander’s later article reviewing Reich’s book in which not only does he point out that the prescriptions of the book are not that dramatically different from his own views despite differences in tone, but the two get in a sweet, long-winded argument in the comments section, the first three points of which open as follows:

Reich: “Scott, I’m grateful for your engagement with my writing about philanthropy. I have been reading Slate Star Codex for a few years. I’ve long admired the site… "

Alexander: “Thanks for your comment. Again, I have a lot of respect for you… "

Reich: “Scott, thanks for the additional comment. I admire you and your work a great deal… "

Though this is relevant to really understanding some of the frustrating aspects of this conversation, as I said, this isn’t a blow by blow analysis of any of these writers, including what the real degree and type of separation between them is. What interested me in this discussion of the democracy of philanthropic decisions is not so much something wrong I saw in these articles, but something I didn’t see, or at least didn’t see taken seriously enough. This is my longest blog post to date, and I worry that in addressing this hot-button topic I will come off as giving complete answers, but although I try to address many concerns to some degree, this is primarily a philosophical rather than a policy statement. What I hope to argue for, in the end, is that there is some sort of tension between the ideal of democracy and the act of philanthropy, but that this doesn’t just create an ethical concern relevant to philanthropy, it also gives philanthropy some unique ethical importance. Democracy is a great thing, but democracy, like free speech, still doesn’t quite work, still isn’t enough on its own. As a fan of both democracy and free speech, I feel especially compelled to point out where each has its limitations, in particular epistemic, as both are theoretically ways to process and empower ideas/experiences as well as interests. I would like to propose the following, that in some cases, democratizing a decision, at least from the point of view of the person who currently has the decision, can be unjust. There are some stand-out cases that I think will come to people’s minds concerning the “tyranny of the majority”, which is a big reason liberal, constitutional government and democratic government are often packaged together, but there’s another, much bigger and more intractable case that presents serious problems.

I propose that democratizing a decision is unjust if:

  1. It is impossible to enfranchise those you are trying to help, or at least they aren’t enfranchised, and your decision can’t change that.

  2. It is only possible to enfranchise a group that has a conflict of interest with the group you are trying to help.

This seems pretty clearly like a case where democratizing a decision would, from your perspective, be unjust. You are essentially sanctioning collective oppression because at least it is collective. Number 2 may seem niche, but in fact because of competition for resources, it is the case almost by default if number 1 is the case. Therefore, any time you are trying to help a group you can’t enfranchise, you have a strong moral reason to use what resources you have to unilaterally help this group. In the sense of where the political sphere may be drawn, the “democratic” decision is not truly legitimate. I should point out right away that this applies to someone with a concrete decision of this kind, not directly to policy, I’ll talk more about this later. Still, this rule presents a surprisingly large number of scenarios where democratic criticisms of billionaire philanthropy are morally weaker.

Number 1 covers, I would argue, the vast, vast majority of moral patients it is possible to affect (though this says nothing of the limitations of our ability to affect these moral patients, which would probably bring it closer to, if not all the way to, even). Look, for example, at the three main cause areas Effective Altruism usually clusters around, starting with global health and development. Global health and development is an issue primarily affecting people in countries that Effective Altruists aren’t recruiting donors from. Your average beneficiary of the Against Malaria Foundation certainly isn’t from the same country as your average patron of it. If the patron’s country is failing to provide proper foreign aid to the people in these malaria-afflicted countries, the billionaire could not say that public funding rejected their cause-area out of a democratic mandate. Foreign aid cannot be driven by a truly democratic mandate, only an altruistic one.

Ch seems to suggest that there is a sense in which this justifies the tendency of foreign aid to be neglected in spending,

“Yes it is understandable, because the people of the United States presumably elect representatives to the government of the United States to solve problems faced by the citizens of the United States, and not those faced by Sudan. Presumably, the people who live in Sudan elect representatives to deal the problems faced by Sudan. But, remember, in Neoliberal world, nation-states are so passe.”

There are several things going on in this sentiment, which is why I pulled a longer quote. Since the Sudanese government is mentioned, I’ll start with the assumption that this article feels that there is something about the existence, or at least possible existence, of a legitimate Sudanese government that justifies keeping public money to ourselves. What would make this true?

For one thing it seems as though the Sudanese government ought to be democratically legitimate. This is of course hard to measure, but the 2019 Global Democracy Index ranks Sudan in the lowest strata in terms of democracy, number 148 out of 167 ranked countries. It is categorized as an “authoritarian regime”, fewer than 20 spots away from North Korea. Perhaps you could doubt the precision of the rankings, but if this argument against foreign aid requires as a minimum condition the democratic legitimacy of a state in question, this should be very concerning. It seems as though if Sudan is not democratic, it does matter a great deal for this decision, because any of those specific people you could choose to help with your resources are, in the sense of the sort of political relationship that politically accounts for each constituent, stateless. In the case of charity, a country merely having some “government” is a morally impoverished way of determining matters of political justice, since it assumes governments, not any of the individuals who make countries up, are the subject of a political philosophy’s concern. Looking at Sudan’s recent history of civil war, genocide, and slavery, and the apparently low-risk of charitable giving as a vector for helping, it is pretty hard to justify inaction by using “but Sudan has a government too” as an excuse.

What if a country does have a democratic government? What else seems required for this to be a relevant justification? Well, if we take governments to be representatives of groups of people at this point, why should there be any more reason against a well-off nation donating to a poor nation than a well-off person giving to a poor person? Since there is a common democratic structure for redistribution in cases where someone well-off donates to the poor in their own country, the key difference between these cases seems to if anything provide less excuse for the wealthy nation to horde its resources. There is no process by which the poorer country could effectively demand a certain minimum of provisions and services from the body of other countries. A comparison on this level could be made to an anarchist state in which someone very wealthy passes someone struggling to survive on the streets. I would say in this case that for the rich person to keep walking and instead spend the money on their own interests, all else being equal, would be morally objectionable. 2

A standard answer here might be that a government is not really its people, there are things people are voluntarily allowed to do that the state cannot force them to do. Under this logic, seizing their money to give overseas might be tyrannical. If Ch was a libertarian blogger championing a non-aggression principle, I would say that this held some consistency if not necessarily force, but crucially, their argument forgives identical “aggression” if it benefits the poor within the state. In fact, it considers the obligation to help those in need within the state so great that it is suspicious of voluntary private giving to the needy overseas because this giving does not have the democratic mandate of those within one’s own country. A sharp line is drawn, where it is unacceptable for someone’s money to be involuntarily seized for use overseas, but quite acceptable for it to be seized for the same purpose within the state.

Reading this article, it seems as though the validity of such a disconnect is assumed as obvious. I can think of no other reason why Ch cites a figure of 120,000 lives being lost since 2010 due to a British austerity decision as a morally urgent argument in favor of government spending, after writing off Alexander’s stat on the significant collateral damage of stopping billionaire philanthropy in which he points out that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has saved around 10 million lives since 2000. This is one of my greatest recent pet peeves in some corners of leftist discourse on things like healthcare, a sort of selected zoom-in. When it comes to domestic healthcare policy, if you support something other than Medicare for All, you are literally killing people. While I’m sympathetic to these sorts of consequentialist zoom-ins on policy decisions, and believe they should be applied broadly and consistently to decisions, it seems to me things change when the lives are foreign. Suddenly you get accusations of shilling neoliberalism and humorous dismissals: “nation-states are so passe.”

Finally, you could defend a difference here by saying that, while Sudan doesn’t currently have the wealth or democracy necessary to excuse our neglect of its people, it does have the opportunity to have these things. If it fails, that’s none of our business and none of our fault. Given accidents of geography and the colonial history of places like Sudan, this argument, once again, seems to be appealing only from the most stereotypical, coldly libertarian perspective, and is vulnerable to all of the same objections as those wielded against “equal opportunity” libertarian arguments.

If it was suggested that the US ought to give foreign aid to Norway, a well-off country with a strong social-safety net and the number one rank on the Global Democracy Index, not to mention the advantage of a recent history free of colonial oppression and a geography full of natural coasts and profitable oil-mining opportunities, the argument that Norway can take care of itself would make sense, and aid to Norway would, under normal circumstances, be quite silly.

Given that we don’t, it is much more questionable that there is any morally compelling way in which the US “deserves” to hoard its wealth. If we assume that we do not deserve this wealth in a morally forceful sense, that this “opportunity” argument fails, there is little that we are left with. The late Effective Altruist philosopher Derek Parfit made this point strikingly in one of his later talks:

“If people from sub-Saharan Africa came and started removing my property, I wouldn’t feel that I had a right to stop them.”

I tend to share this intuition, and generally think most people on reflection would agree that if the desperately poor of Sudan pulled a heist, and stole millions of dollars from the US treasury to help them and their friends, this would be a good, or at least morally forgivable act overall. It should immediately strike us as suspicious if we are comfortable with this intuition, but suspicious of the US government giving this same money away to the same people, or, if the US government fails to, private individuals giving this money to the same people. It seems the moral importance of this act is sufficient that it would be justified even if the means for carrying it out was literal theft from the American people. 3

Of course the other possibility is that the argument that Sudan can deal with its own problems isn’t significant, that it is a dishonest and distracting hypothetical that has little to do with our current situation. Whether intentional or not, I suspect that is ultimately what is at play in this quote. An attempt to make a token mention of the people being neglected by the actual arguments, as though they are actually a concern of the arguments in any capacity.

The quote’s mention of the “neoliberal” disregard of national borders is a common theme in much of the article, and in my opinion telling. For my own part, I think that national borders don’t have any intrinsic moral significance. Though disagreement on this point is not unreasonable, I would go so far as to say that on the most basic level, moral concern for “nation” as a category is no better a category distinction than race or sex. If there is reason to treat it differently, it should be on the emergent level of what changes in a practical or political sense across borders. Given this, we should accept that the absence of the necessary features of this difference is disqualifying to an appeal to nationality.

If we were to reorganize morality around nations however, a pattern would emerge in this article’s concerns. As I have alluded to, it seems to view nations internally in an anti-libertarian sense, and international relations in a libertarian sense. The state constitutes a sharp private border, where no one is responsible to care for anyone else beyond minimum respect for their private concerns, and that failures in outcome can either be blamed on misuse of opportunities, or called unfortunate but not of public concern in other countries. A situation where a lack of foreign aid can be morally written off as “understandable” with no further issue.

On the international level, this seems to break with intuitions more seriously than even on the national level. After all, while most people view individuals as responsible for past choices and owed rewards from past success, at least to a point, nations are populated entirely with people who had no say in the majority of major national events that precipitated their current situations. If some form of “national responsibility” exists, as I think many people believe in some circumstances, it is surely weaker than the personal one. For example, if Germany should pay for the crimes of the Holocaust, Hitler should definitely pay for the crimes of the Holocaust.

So why this sharp break at the national border? I believe it is ultimately practical. This quote says that a nation will be bound to prefer that its representatives help its own people. If we accept that democracy provides legitimacy to the decisions of a body, and that democracy is limited in its scope, then the easiest way to preserve the idea that democracy is truly good enough on its own, is to hack our political philosophy to say that a democracy is only responsible for those it represents. Unless we consider bodies like the UN to be effective governing democracies, states are the limit of democracy, and so the highest democratic authority it is possible to appeal to. At the international scale, democracy has proven very difficult, and of course, until all countries are democracies, truly legitimate international democracy through something like the UN is impossible even in theory.

This type of nation-scale limitation seems to be an issue for much political philosophy concerning the state. The fact that a concept of political justice doesn’t recognize international relations reliably should not be seen as an excuse for dismissing international moral issues, it should be seen as a failure and limitation of the political philosophy itself. Despite not sharing Alexander’s degree of irreverence to abstract political considerations, I share some of his frustration at appeals to politics as the fundamental realm for ethical criticism.

I also feel the need to say that the fact that so many leftists are keen on painting private philanthropy in a bad light and so many rightists are keen on painting public spending on foreign aid in a bad light, and both seem reasonably willing to concede the other side’s advocacy, paints a bleak picture for those of us who think, however it happens, something should be done to help those suffering the worst in the world. It seems to me that a wide range of people display the type of national selfishness most aligned with their own ideology on this issue.

Weyl’s piece is more robust to these problems, since it makes more general, epistemic arguments against technocracy, rather than appealing to the special authority of some sort of state democracy. He appeals to the value of integrating on-the-ground information, and receiving outsider criticism of projects 4. This can successfully be generalized to global health and development in a couple of ways. When it comes to democratic foreign countries, it suggests, at least if we are only taking the democratic argument as a consideration, that we can donate to these governments, so that they can better care for their citizens. Even for non-democratic countries, it suggests that we should create systems for collecting input from the people we are trying to help, and bring them into relevant aid organizations as much as possible, a worthwhile idea.

Still, it’s not just international issues that are a problem for the democratic objection to large philanthropy. This is only one of the three major focus areas of Effective Altruism, and it is arguably the easiest one to incorporate some sort of democratic arguments into, as seen with how intact Weyl is. Another significant focus area is future generations.

Here, much more serious problems come up. Most people, I believe, agree that we should care about future generations in our policy decisions. We cannot, however, give them any sort of vote in the decisions of any country, or even listen to them. Furthermore, the relationship is one-way. We don’t need to worry about the interests of future generations in even a prudent sense, because however we harm them, they can’t affect us in return. On top of all this, the decisions we make about future generations won’t just affect reliable, predictable people, but will change the identities of future people at the same time as it helps or hurts them (this actually presents one of the few arguments for why we shouldn’t care about future generations, though if you reject the argument, which I think most do, then it presents a very serious problem for how to think about your effect).

There are at least some things you could do to “democratize” spending in this area somewhat legitimately, for example you could leave money to accumulate for use by future democratic governments. But this doesn’t cover all classes of issues where we have an effect on future generations. As I mentioned briefly in an earlier article, decisions about “possible people” for instance, whatever we do, will help decide who comes into existence, and there is no way to properly democratize that decision, since no pool of all relevant interests to the decision will ever really exist. Extinction is an extreme form of this type of decision, though well worth considering since it arguably covers the cases where we can have the most reliable type of impact on the future (if we fail to prevent an extinction event, this has predictably huge effects).

Weyl does try to incorporate the longtermist focus of Effective Altruists into his arguments, but he can’t make the usual epistemic case, the one rooted in synthesizing on-the-ground information from affected parties, so he relies on switching to the argument that social stability is important to many Effective Altruists when it comes to long term risks, and that technocratic movements don’t promote stability. It is easy to cringe at the reach Weyl has to make on this point, as he obviously can’t make the case that we should enfranchise those we are making long-term decisions about, and so has to smuggle in an entirely different argument about longtermism at the last minute. Still, although he doesn’t bother to develop this point much, it is not inconceivable.

The problems are possibly even more dire when it comes to the final area of focus common for Effective Altruists, animal welfare. More than these other two areas of focus, I think people are apt to hold resistance to the idea that this should be a moral concern at all. While I have become convinced of the arguments that this is both a morally serious issue, and a good concern for Effective Altruism, if you disagree with me on this point, it removes at least one area where the democratic objection to big philanthropy would be problematic.

Still, if you accept that a philanthropist believes animal welfare is an important issue, it seems as though the democratic objection is still deflated. The relevant billionaire, after all, has no special reason to believe that you are right about animal welfare being unimportant, nor to respect the democratic force of your objection, since non-human animals are, always have been, and in the forseeable future always will be, entirely unenfranchisable in human decisions concerning them. Their voice is not part of the democratically established ideology concerning them. Here, the arguments about how we could leave money for democratic governments, or consult individuals in a democraticish manner fall apart. Perhaps, as with longtermism, Weyl could try to create an entirely different work-around for democratic decision making here if he tried hard enough, maybe saying something about public image, but as it happens he doesn’t even try. Whether this is because he presupposes that we shouldn’t care about animal welfare, or because there was nothing convincing he could say in this area, or just because it was one of his blind-spots about the interests of Effective Altruists, I don’t know.

This type of limitation of the democracy argument doesn’t stop at these types of Effective Altruist, politically neglected cause areas either. Ch spends a good deal of their rage discussing political spending used to influence domestic issues through things like laws, court decisions, and elections. In his followup, Scott Alexander discusses this objection more and mostly defends against this argument by saying that the role of billionaires in politics is often exaggerated or misrepresented. Still, it is true that influence of this sort does happen, and, it seems like the democratic objections to large philanthropy are especially strong and easy to get behind in these cases.

There is something intuitive about this even for the types of cases I have discussed. It seems morally much different to give private money to overseas charities than to spend your money influencing the government’s budget to allocate more public funds to foreign aid. I fear I will be misunderstood as advocating billionaires interfering in politics here. To be clear, I do not think this should be allowed, and would even advocate more limitations on the abilities of billionaires to do this than currently exist. What I want to emphasize is that messier principles than democratic legitimacy often need to be invoked even here, and while these should set policy limits for what billionaire philanthropy can do, there are also limits to what it is reasonable for policy to condemn.

Some of the areas of political reform that Effective Altruists are particularly interested in have this feature of running into democratic limitation. Criminal justice reform often concerns the disenfranchised, voting rights are often removed or limited for those who commit felonies. Until they are enfranchised, which unlike many of the areas discussed here is perfectly conceivable, the people the state is awarded the most discretion and power over have their voice artificially limited. Decisions about them lack the legitimacy necessary to pose the same types of criticisms as other types of spending meant to influence domestic policy.

Immigration reform seems if anything to be an even more popular interest of Effective Altruists, considering the strong case that liberalization of immigration could have tremendous benefits. It is interesting that immigration is often framed as a domestic issue with the usual sort of democratic legitimacy, despite the fact that many of those affected by immigration decisions, namely prospective immigrants and non-citizen immigrants, are entirely disenfranchised in immigration decisions. If they do end up with a vote, it is because of the decisions about them that were already made by others.

Normally we are very uncomfortable with the idea of democracies deciding on who gets to be part of the democracy (a point Weyl in particular acknowledges in his Quadratic Voting chapter of “Radical Markets”). If we say that the motive of a well-run country, in part, is to take a special interest in its future as well as current interests (which for reasons I discussed earlier, seems like a problematic duty for standard political theory to account for), then it seems strange to think that our current pool of citizens is descended from a pool of people including some who got to be part of this decision, and some who didn’t. In the sense in which a country consists of representatives both of themselves and their descendants, the eventual citizens who are descended from immigrants are second-class citizens, because their inclusion in this pool was conditional, while that of citizens descended from the citizens of the time was not conditional in the same way. Like the examples I gave earlier, and unlike criminal justice reform, this issue is democratically intractable even in theory.

You can even acknowledge this problem with democratic objections if you disagree with an advocate on principle. To draw on an example I used in an old post, let’s say a billionaire is spending money to influence the overturning of “Roe v Wade”, acting on the assumption that fetuses matter morally, and we ought to accept that abortion is therefore impermissible. If you think fetuses matter morally, this case shares the feature with the previous examples that those you are trying to help cannot be enfranchised, and the democratic decision about them cannot be trusted as legitimate. I think spending money to overturn Roe v Wade would be wrong, and I am comfortable objecting that the hypothetical billionaire’s pro-life view is wrong, even if you consider some or all fetuses to be moral patients. Likewise I could object both to the negative influence this type of spending has on important political structures and precedents, and I could object to the type of system that would allow this disproportionate power to arise, but I could not object that this spending was wrong because it is “undemocratic”. The sense in which it is “democratic” is in this case individually unconvincing as based in principles of political justice.

There are several other problems I mentioned, related to democracy, with large philanthropy. One is that, on the individual level the standard democratic reasons against exerting personal power may not apply, but on the policy level, all else being equal, we have no reason to empower one person more than a collective of people if neither has the unique legitimacy to speak for the relevant beneficiaries. I think there are additional considerations that make this somewhat questionable for guiding policy.

Scott Alexander gets at this to some extent in “Against Against Billionaire Philanthropy”. It seems as though a great many things that don’t currently get public funding could not get funding at all if all non-profit spending was public. After all, it is very hard to get the public behind controversial/complicated projects or new potential problems. Private philanthropy, in a word, can be more diverse. It doesn’t have to go all in on one relatively safe solution, both missing the best possible solutions and still winding up entirely wasting massive programs, private philanthropy can put forward many programs, the few of which succeed could be hugely beneficial. If the public looks at private philanthropy and decides that the type of diverse pursuits private philanthropy allows are valuable enough to be worth keeping around, this does not answer all democratic objections to big philanthropy, but it certainly counts for something. 5

Ch by comparison seems to base a good deal of their case on the assumption that, if only big money got out of politics, all of the stuff that it is really valuable to fund will be funded properly. In part my disagreement comes from a disagreement about what it is really valuable to fund, as evidenced by Ch’s dismissal of foreign aid. Part of it though seems to derive from an overblown degree of faith in democratically centralized funding in general. The most egregious case of this is arguably the part where, when reviewing Alexander’s arguments against over-centralizing funding, Ch takes a moment from blaming everything on some billionaire or another to say that the problem also comes in large part from the platform of the Republican Party. Rather than treating this as any kind of concession, even small or temporary, like everything else in the article, Ch somehow sees it as a clear vindication. That’s a bit hard to sell though since, although Republicans would almost certainly be less powerful with less money in government, a good deal of Republican power comes from, well, people being Republicans. Unless Ch is ditching the democracy thing altogether and secretly vying for a vanguardist one-party state, not ever wanting to be dependent on Republican policies for something seems like a pretty clear reason not to exclusively rely on the government for it.

Additionally, if we stop government subsidization of big philanthropy, and set legal limits that look at the ways philanthropy endangers the democracy of the legal system (through things like campaign contributions and perhaps even looks at the ways discourse is influenced by private, partisan foundations), the democratic case for restricting this spending is weakened to the point of near-irrelevance. As an example, we would certainly have policy objections to the ability of the pro-life billionaire trying to influence the overturning of Roe v Wade, but does the same objection apply to the pro-choice billionaires who fund abortion services the government won’t touch? 6

Getting an abortion is legal in the US, so the fact that government funding on it is severely restricted, it seems to me, can only be interpreted in two ways:

  1. It is an attempt to manipulate the legal system to make abortion de-facto illegal without going through the channels necessary to make it illegal de-jure.

  2. It is a good faith manifestation of the belief that public spending should not accommodate all the things people should be able to legally do, a premise that requires the assumption that a legitimate private sphere for funding of this sort exists.

Both of these interpretations support the existence of privately funded abortion services, because the first only contradicts an invalid vector for policy manipulation by working around a work around, and the second is supported on the current democratic terms of the policy. 7

Probably the strongest concern about philanthropy of this kind is one that Ch implicitly makes in many of their points. If billionaires are responsible for funding a project, then they have discretion over it. If the government isn’t offering a service like safe abortion access, then individual billionaires have more leverage than they should, since they could defund these services on a whim (in the case of non-profits, there isn’t even a monetary incentive to keep them around). This is not in itself a problem, after all the government could offer these services as well, and for previously mentioned reasons redundancies of this sort seem important, but you could make the case that the existence of billionaire-funded programs like these breeds political complacency. That people will take for granted that they can have safe abortions, so they won’t try to bring about a public source for them. This gives us a strong reason to advocate for a public version of services that are available through private non-profits, but the types of cases where democratic power is illegitimate will remain blindspots of any such advocacy. There will never be a much stronger reason for the public to support foreign aid than for billionaires to give to overseas causes, and both could withdraw it on a whim because of convenience or resentment (I don’t buy that billionaires generally fund charities, or would stop funding them, out of pure greed. As Alexander points out in his followup article, it makes little sense to give away as much of your income as donating billionaires often do to get some fraction of that back in tax breaks or enact some roundabout PR plot to get your overall taxes decreased by a couple percentage points) 8.

I think that private philanthropy can be good enough, and compatible enough with a healthy public sector, that even on the policy level it is not worth condemning as a whole, but I should note here that the strongest arguments for why allowing it is good and not merely neutral (the idea that the private sphere of philanthropy is more diverse and dynamic, and so can be something the public has a reasonable desire for within certain legal limits) is not itself a strong argument in favor of billionaire philanthropy. Private philanthropy can exist and have these properties while only occurring on a much smaller scale, with much less money given per individual (the sort of philanthropy me and many of my friends engage in for instance).

Alexander and Ch’s articles don’t make it enough of a point to concede that the diverse private sphere argument is not at all unique to billionaire philanthropy, it is perfectly consistent to defend the merits of this realm of philanthropy without the motive of justifying the huge concentrations of wealth and power that currently exist in the world. That is a different conversation. Weyl survives this point the best. His work elsewhere on “Quadratic Finance” accepts the premise that private philanthropy, or in his case it is probably more accurate to call it decentralized funding, has undeniable advantages over standard government programs, and he builds a theoretically elegant model that actually uses government subsidies of private giving to empower larger numbers of smaller donations more than smaller numbers of large donations. I should add though, that QF operates on the assumption that it is funding “public goods”, so it has the same problems with legitimacy I highlight for democracy in general, and it only works well for public goods assuming prior redistribution of resources. It cannot replace current welfare programs, as some of the biggest beneficiaries, like the young, elderly, and poor, would be least able to represent themselves through contributions.

While I think that the policy argument for permitting and wanting some domain of private organizational work is strong, the much more uncomfortable question is whether it is ever ethical to break the ideal rules in this area seems to remain. I have previously made the point that there are many domains of apparently domestic policy where democratic legitimacy does not really work as an argument. This seems to leave open the possibility that, while some philanthropy might be democratically problematic, it may at times nonetheless be individually ethical. Even on the individual level of act consequentialism I subscribe to, this is dubious since it sets bad precedents, and at the extreme can erode the rule of law. The burden of proof seems to be on the individual who thinks they are in an extreme enough situation for such action to be warranted.

Proof of concept here isn’t hard however. If there was an abolitionist billionaire in the 19th century (were there billionaires back then? I don’t think so but don’t know how to look it up, whatever, it’s a hypothetical 9) hoping to bribe the supreme court to end slavery, we would likely look back on them with approval. This is at the extreme end of both problematic tactics and morally urgent motives, and there are counter considerations even here, for instance it may be that this causes a backlash that encourages even greater counter spending. Still, we are seeking these problems out only after feeling the importance of the relevant cause. What hits us first is the ending slavery part. It seems like there is a political burden of proof on someone who considers it individually reasonable for them to break from good policy in some way, but there is an ethical burden of proof on someone who opposes action to tackle extremely morally urgent issues of this sort. Since it is coherent for someone to think that rules of this sort should simply be absolute, perhaps the better way to frame this side of the issue is what Bryan Caplan calls a “missing mood”. If you were to, for example, look at a billionaire able to single-handedly end slavery in the 19th century, and decide that their method for doing it, even if it would reliably work, was simply impermissible, it would seem like you should feel miserable about it. You should feel the real cost of your ethical doctrine weighing on you as you think of the victims.

As hypothetical as all this is, the missing mood and burden of proof considerations the ethics of these individual decisions bring seems to be a significant, unspoken part of the argument on Alexander’s part. If someone is able to save millions of lives, or to help prevent human extinction, and someone else comes along criticizing the idea because of subtle ways it erodes good political norms, it would be hard to trust them if they were dismissive or callous about the cause in question. Even in extreme cases like breaking the law, action on very important moral issues seems like a default presumption that must be overcome. In cases like this, it is something that I think is in the end overcome. I do not think billionaires ought to try to manipulate policy directly, even on most issues I consider very important, but in some of the extreme cases of this, it pains me to say it. It would be troubling if it didn’t.

A final type of reason for caring about democracy, not directly related to this concept of “legitimacy”, is epistemic reasons. This is the type of case Weyl’s article focuses on. While the article seems to be most interested in feedback from those who are impacted by decisions (that is, it argues epistemic power aligns with democratic legitimacy), it is true that there may be good epistemic reasons for democracy outside of this. You might, for example, accept that, while the people you might give this power to don’t have the on-the-ground experience or interests of those you are trying to help, they may have a ton of information you don’t. They might have more expertise than you in an academic sense for example. Or they might not be individually more qualified than you in any sense, but have many different perspectives to consider which, if they converge on the same solutions or objections, become compelling because of robustness.

In my opinion, this objection provides a good reason for donors, especially big donors, to consult others, especially others who care about this issue, but to arguably a greater degree than the precedent/rule of law considerations, some issues without democratic legitimacy are morally urgent enough that the risk of failing to help overrides the epistemic strengths of total democratization. And of course, the strengths of democratization are arguably much weaker in circumstances in which those affected aren’t represented. In fact, for cases where those affected cannot be consulted at all, such as the examples of future generations and other species, it may be that the type of “technocratic” institutions Weyl so derides become far more valuable than collective wisdom.

Most of the issues I have examined are focus areas of Effective Altruism, and it doesn’t seem to me that Effective Altruists have decided to focus here specifically because they are places where democratic legitimacy is lacking. As it happens, even looked at exclusively in terms of how important it is to help, it seems like those you can help the most are generally also those systematically excluded, in some cases with little or no hope of eventual inclusion, from the circle of democracy. Insofar as democratic legitimacy in billionaire philanthropy is a key issue, this should be seen as damning.

Of course, I have highlighted other factors in the “democratic objections” to philanthropy that are worth considering, so it is not certain that this is the key issue. In fact, if you believe that billionaire philanthropy is bad on a policy level, you might argue that this is a pretty small issue. Why care about the morality of making decisions as a billionaire when most of us aren’t and never will be billionaires, and, it seems at least, will only interact with this issue on a policy level?

Aside from academic interest in what it is right or wrong for a billionaire to do, I think most people do care about the actual guilt or innocence, even of small populations, in morality. For me though, I would agree that the considerations should mostly be practical, and that some of the usual values of practical ethics arguments are not present in this case. However, I think this argument does have significant practical relevance to the issue of charitable giving, and how the Effective Altruism community at large should act. Two areas of Effective Altruism in particular stand out, earning to give and meta-charity.

While it is usually worth doubting the value of pursuing a career in the “earning to give” category, it is not entirely discredited within Effective Altruism. Some people are better positioned to work in a well-paying career than a directly impactful career. At the very least, if you aren’t interested in a directly impactful career path, or you want to stay within a particular field, earning more money to give more money away is arguably always better by the standard Effective Altruist measures, all else being equal. If the democratic objections to big philanthropy are taken seriously, this is an intentional, undemocratic power grab. You are not just trying to decide how to have an impact, you are trying to seize more personal power to personally act on this. If democratic objections are to be believed, there is a further reason to be skeptical of “earning to give”. If my claims about the democratic objection are right however, your average Effective Altruist is doing nothing, or at least not nearly so much, wrong, in trying to earn more money to give more money away. 10

On the subject of meta-charity, from “Famine, Affluence, and Morality” on, some degree of “Affluence” has usually been assumed as part of the moral premises of the movement. It does seem to me that it is the case that the biggest targets of the Effective Altruism movement have been middle to upper-middle class college students or graduates. The question of whether and how much work should be done to change this is more complex than I am prepared to get into, but it seems that the movement is fairly divided on it, and Singer himself would rather see the movement expand (Weyl clearly would). This pool is not mostly made of Billionaires, but the level of philanthropy and types of jobs usually prescribed do assume a certain level of privilege that not everyone has access to. Any message to the Effective Altruism movement at large, therefore, is likely to be received by a pool partially selected for by being closer to these “undemocratic” circumstances than average.

Attempts to influence Effective Altruism on the level of forming recommendations are attempts to influence the at least somewhat wealthy. It is not clear that philanthropy of the sort the average upper-middle class college graduate might engage in is considered individually influential enough to be a serious concern for some of the critics of big philanthropy (the threshold is difficult to place, it may require the ability to gain majority power over an organization, or, on the prohibitively restrictive end, might say that you shouldn’t donate more than the worst off citizen comfortably could, which, uh, would currently be nothing. More plausibly it is a matter of degrees with no threshold), but there are meta-charitable organizations that specifically work for or target the extremely wealthy, such as “Open Philanthropy” or “Founders Pledge”.

If the democratic critics of big philanthropy are right, Effective Altruists should be much more wary of trying to influence the donations of the very wealthy. After all, even those Effective Altruists who don’t have to make these decisions from the perspective of a billionaire, do sometimes make decisions that are analogous in their influence on the decisions of billionaires. Once again, it seems to me the validity of these democratic objections on the level of individual morality rather than just policy is potentially quite relevant to concerned Effective Altruists.

Though I feel that the democratic legitimacy point has been noticeably absent from this conversation as I usually see it, as I have said, it is only one of many considerations. I do think, however, those who agree that one very significant feature of democracy is the empowerment of an electorate, should take very seriously how hollow an objection this is to many types of activism, in particular those that involve funding that doesn’t take the form of “public goods”. Those working to help the world’s poorest people, worst suffering animals, and vast future generations, should worry a bit less about democratic input specifically in deciding which courses of action are ethical.

  1. (and whatever you think of Alexander’s own politics, neo-feudalists are real, and Alexander has himself written the most extensive rebuttal of their ideology I have seen) ↩︎

  2. Ed. Note: Some of you may wonder if this is a good justification for a world government, or even merely a stronger United Nations. This is beyond the scope of this article, but the strongest types of world government may cause other nontrivial problems.. If you’re wondering where I, Nick, stand on the issue, I am a fan of projects such as seasteading and asteroid colonization, where new governmental structures can be easily created, tried out, entered, and (crucially) exited. ↩︎

  3. Ed. Note: this would make an awesome movie btw. ↩︎

  4. Ed. Note: On-the-ground (or “localized”) knowledge is an important, surprisingly little-mentioned concept. See Seeing Like a State and The Future and Its Enemies↩︎

  5. Ed. Note: Risk and lesser-appreciated ideas: two other concepts that generally contradict centralization. ↩︎

  6. Ed. Note: Don’t forget a billionaire who covertly funded a crazy new moonshot technology for birth control↩︎

  7. Ed. Note: Abortion itself is also undemocratically restricted through means other than non-funding↩︎

  8. For problems with, and expansion on this point, see Appendix D↩︎

  9. Ed. Note: The earliest nominal billionaire appears to have been John D. Rockefeller, although adjusting for inflation and relative wealth/power shows that some people in the 1800s would have been at the level of modern billionaires today. ↩︎

  10. Ed. Note: This, of course, is still contingent on the job you pick, and whether you’re doing unusual amounts of harm as part of it. ↩︎

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