During the government shutdown billionaire philanthropists Laura and John Arnold gave $10 million to the National Head Start Association to keep the program for low-income children running. Mr. Arnold made it clear, however, that he did not believe this was a permanent solution, as “private dollars cannot in the long term replace government commitments.”
But some people thought Arnold’s generosity itself undermined the government’s power. As The Nation’s Amy Schiller said, “The entire shutdown is undergirded by a fantasy of a world in which the government’s power is vastly reduced and private citizens step into the breach with better, more innovative ideas for solving social challenges.”
It’s not that they are against all philanthropy — only the public donations that undermine the government’s monopoly on power. As John Daniel Davidson explains:
Private philanthropy, in this view, is a threat not just to long-established government programs but to democracy itself. Charity is all well and good as long as it’s restricted to symphonies and other “ornamental causes,” but foundations that have greater public policy ambitions represent the “voice of plutocracy.”
But are large philanthropic foundations worse than the massive government welfare bureaucracy we have today? Given the size and ubiquity of our public welfare programs today, the question is speculative. Government has imposed a veritable monopoly on almost all forms of social welfare, so there’s no way to know whether private groups would step forward if government stepped back, or what the results would be.
Not that the publicly-funded safety net would need to vanish altogether, but private groups could take on certain tasks the government has seen fit to weave into the safety net over the years, such as food assistance and job training. Since private groups have nowhere near the government’s ability to raise funds through the taxing power, their efforts would have to get much more out of every dollar—and be able to show tangible results.