If we want to tackle inequality, we need to pick better targets than the entire existence of charity.
Lately, it’s become more mainstream to knock charity, particularly big philanthropy, as anti-democratic. In response to criticisms that Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-VT) hypothetical proposal to tax Bill Gates for $100 billion dollars would hinder worthwhile charitable causes, journalist Carlos Maza tweeted out, “Americans have zero control over how billionaires choose to spend their money dramatically reshaping the world.”
Plenty of books have been written with this perspective in mind, from political theorist Rob Reich’s “Just Giving: Why Philanthropy Is Failing Democracy and How It Can Do Better” to former New York Times columnist Anand Giridharadas’ “Winners Take All.”
However, a lot of these criticisms seem simultaneously self-defeatist and over-reaching, especially when it comes to charity. There are many charitable organizations that do good work, including those led by the ultra-rich. These include the efforts of the Gates Foundation and the Clinton Foundation, two of the best examples of charities that have major positive effects on the world that would get cut off if we eliminate all charity.
There are also ordinary acts of charity that people perform on a day to day basis that don’t have any dramatic consequences against democracy. Religions like Islam or the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints incorporate charity as part of their faith and no one seems up in arms about that.
Outside of faith or taxes, it’s your choice on how to spend your money; whether you donate to charity or not. It’s the same for the wealthy, albeit on a larger scale. Why should they be forced to spend their post-taxed money a specific way if real, positive change is happening where it previously wasn’t?
After all, a lot of high-profile politicians in Congress and state governments (barring the obvious examples like Trump) are unapologetically wealthy. This includes Sen. Bernie Sanders, who jokingly commented in April that he “didn’t know it was a crime” to write a book that made up most of his millionaire status, as reported by CNN. Why not give a voice to those who don’t get as many dollar votes, like the over 100 members of Congress with a negative net worth, according to Roll Call. This includes former 2020 presidential candidates like Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA), who was racked with tens of thousands of dollars in student debt, according to Market Watch.
Former Mayor Pete Buttigieg, the only non-billionaire or millionaire presidential candidate who attended LMU for the December presidential debate, even pointed out the hypocrisy of these misdirected attacks directly to Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA).
Let me reiterate that I don't believe all billionaires or millionaires have a heart of gold. There are plenty of examples of the wealthy creating inequality and chaos on college campuses through charitable means.
One of the most notable examples was the charity Key Worldwide Foundation, which played a major role in the USC admissions scandal last year, according to The Denver Post. There are also conservative and fossil-fuel-friendly organizations like Young Americans for Freedom (YAF) and Turning Point USA (TPUSA), which are loaded with millions of dollars from people like the Devoses and Bradleys, and in TPUSA's case, actively influencing college elections sans student involvement.
What us college students should pay attention to is transparency. How is our time and energy being used to actually solve the issues we care about? Those are close to the same questions many of us will be asking of political candidates when we step into a voting booth in the next few weeks. It's the antithesis of anti-democratic behavior.
This is the opinion of Cristobal Spielmann, a sophomore environmental science major from Brentwood, Tennessee. Tweet comments @LALoyolan or email firstname.lastname@example.org.