Bezos’s latest philanthropic venture has taken everyone by surprise.
Reconciling philanthropy and democracy
But Bezos’ request for ideas – which within days had amassed more than 40,000 tweeted responses and considerable media coverage – might help reconcile the conflicts between philanthropy and democracy.
The term “philanthropopulism” first surfaced a decade ago as big donors sought new ways to make their giving more effective.
Now emerging research on the wisdom of crowds shows that large numbers of minds often make better decisions than small numbers of experts.
Perhaps well-designed procedures for involving the public in giving decisions could help improve the quality of the gifts.That might also help to respond to critics like Stan Katz – a historian who worries that today’s biggest donors are betraying the principles of American democracy.The ideal of democracy requires that everyone enjoy equal opportunities to influence matters of public concern.But as private wealth finances a widening array of public functions and inequality proliferates – ordinary people are losing more and more control over their common affairs.
Katz observes that foundations — not voters — are behind the explosion of charter schools and high-stakes testing and the decline of teachers’ unions.
His observations corroborate disturbing findings by political scientists Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page that the middle class no longer exerts any noticeable influence over public policy.
In the absence of national political will to contain economic inequality – a request for public input on big philanthropic decisions could restore some democratic control over public life.