Notwithstanding questions over whether its themes and their exposition could have been condensed, Rob Reich’s “Just Giving” – in offering a political theory of philanthropy guided by the theories of liberty and justice under democratic settings, so as to identify the type(s) of institutional arrangements which should define and structure philanthropy – examines, in particular, the favourable tax treatment of donations, the definition of the non-profit sector for both public charity and private foundations, as well as the limits of philanthropy. With the goal of supporting a strong liberal democracy and promoting justice, especially the equity of opportunities, the central argument is that philanthropy needs to be properly defined and structured through social norms, legal rules, and public policy. In other words: “The design of institutions, formal and informal, matters a great deal for what counts as philanthropy, how philanthropy is practised, who its beneficiaries are, and how it relates to the state. Philanthropy is not an invention of the state but an artefact of it”.
Deference to and praise of philanthropy – which could be positioned as an apparent menace to the welfare or a society – are therefore questioned, and instead philanthropy is framed as a form or an exercise of power, converting private assets into public influence. The present legal design in the United States, from which many other countries take guidance from, facilitates this exercise of power given the low accountability of foundations, the lack of transparency, the protection of donor intent in perpetuity, and the tax-advantaged or tax-subsidised regimes. Neither should it be taken for granted that those in need receive the most assistance. “Rather than asking about the purposes of charity and power of philanthropists, we tend instead to celebrate donors, large and small, for their generosity. We ought however to be asking, what is the role of philanthropy in a liberal democratic society, and what role should philanthropy play?”
And in considering the ethical and political dimensions of philanthropy, Reich further problematises the status quo and emphasises the need to rectify philanthropy’s failings by changing the policies and institutions which shape it. Donors should not only be cognisant of these configurations involving those who give money away for public purposes, “Just Giving” adds, but also pay attention to the outcomes of charity and philanthropy. Even if foundations are ultimately justified by their roles in promoting pluralism (“diminishing government orthodoxy and decentralising the definition and distribution of public goods”) and discovery (“taking risks in social policy experimentation and innovation”, given their long time horizons), continued scrutiny of their ostensible contributions should continue.