The 19th-century critique of big philanthropy.

The history behind current events.
Nov. 10 2006 12:27 PM

Looking the Carnegie Gift Horse in the Mouth

The 19th-century critique of big philanthropy.

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Even if all the billionaires somehow followed Buffett's example and gave their money to tax-free foundations, the growth of the foundation sector might be a mixed blessing. No one wants to criticize generosity or look a gift horse in the mouth. But there are large questions of social policy here that go unconfronted. Private foundations can do virtually anything they please with their billions, tax-free and with little regulation. I might applaud the work of the Rockefeller, Carnegie, and Gates foundations. But I might be considerably less enthusiastic about a torrent of private money unleashed on educational campaigns to outlaw abortion and birth control, defund the public schools, abolish inheritance and income taxes, end gun control, and withdraw funding from the United Nations and international organizations. You might disagree; either way neither of us should be sanguine about a future in which billionaires play a larger and larger role in determining social policy without any say from the rest of us.

So, pardon me for clapping with one hand only when Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, and the billionaires who follow their example preserve their fortunes by transferring them to private foundations. I'd rather see their gifts greeted with the same scrutiny visited a century ago upon the donations made by Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller. William Jewett Tucker, a reverend and future president of Dartmouth College, put it this way in 1891: Critiquing Carnegie's "Gospel of Wealth" he declared that a society could make no greater mistake than asking charity to do the work of social justice.

David Nasaw is the author of Andrew Carnegie and The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst. He is the Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. professor of history at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

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