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Giving: Charity and Philanthropy in History By Robert H. Bremner
Transaction. 235 pp. $34.95

We are experiencing a period of unprecedented charitable giving in America (it peaked in 1989 and was precipitated, of course, by what liberals have identified as “the politics of greed”), and we are on the cusp of an equally unprecedented intergenerational transfer of wealth that will beget a great many trusts for the perpetual institutionalization of such giving. We may properly be grateful for the spirit of these wonderful gestures, but can we be confident that good will come of them? Indeed, at a time when the most demonstrable effect of many of our popular efforts to do good works has been dramatically to increase whatever problems they had been designed to ameliorate, we may even have reason to fear whether our nation can withstand a torrent of generosity.

As this specter joins all the other specters haunting America, it bespeaks an urgent need for wisdom in the practice of philanthropy that inclines one to open Robert H. Bremner’s Giving: Charity and Philanthropy in History with more hope than this slim omnium- gatherum of Western thought on charity and philanthropy can satisfy. Some of the best and worst ideas can be found here, from sound moral principles to mere posturings, but Bremner does not offer an opinion as to which is which.

As Bremner visits writers, poets, philosophers, saints, and reformers, from Aeschylus to Toni Morrison, for their views of the philanthropic project, his chronological array of anecdotes and historical insights- many of them precious-does not show any improving pattern of growth in philanthropic thinking. Progress has not been kind to philanthropy. And the effectiveness of charity, which is hardly addressed in this book, certainly cannot be said to have advanced, unless advancement is a matter of growing larger, of generating new programs with new acronyms, of networking with other caregivers , of establishing task forces, of expanding promiscuously to take on “hot” issues, of hiring more effective fund raisers, and of having more and more clients in need of service from one year to the next.

Bremner tells us that modern philanthropy took shape around the turn of the century when millionaires like Carnegie and Rockefeller sought “practical, socially useful ways of disposing of surplus wealth.” Well, “disposing” is not a nice verb-especially in a book about “giving”-and the distinction between wealth and “surplus wealth” is arguable, but there was also much more to the shaping of modern philanthropy than the sharp increase on its supply side that the new American fortunes brought into play. Bremner has the time about right, but it was the progressives of that era, not its millionaires, who tragically modernized the business of helping others.

As Marvin Olasky has shown elsewhere, in the late nineteenth century many small volunteer groups in cities throughout America were performing works of mercy-in the words of the Industrial Christian Alliance, to “restore the fallen and helpless to self-respect and self-support.” Typically, the first objective of these groups with an applicant for relief was to get to know-to know, personally-the individual in need of assistance, not as a client, but as a fellow human being. Through their faith and good works they put the lie to the hopeless theories of Social Darwinism and enabled thousands of those in need to gain control of their lives. British author David Green has recently written of the apolitical welfare services provided by guilds and lodges and friendly societies of that period in England, using the term civic capitalism to underscore the moral context that distinguished their kind of capitalism from laissez faire libertarianism.

But these magnificent institutions of civil society and their effective methods were replaced, at the peak of their performance, by larger, more professional, more specialized and centralized organizations with a distinctly different character.

The philosophy transforming charity at the turn of the century is found in Bremner’s quotes from George Bernard Shaw, who presages the Great Society when he identifies relief as “a public duty, like enforcement of sanitation, that should be undertaken by the public.” Shaw also professes the ideology of victimization when he asserts that an un- dependable, alcoholic employee suffers from “a disadvantage exactly similar to that suffered by the
blind . . . or any other victim of impaired faculty.” As Shaw was writing, Jane Addams-whom Bremner has discussed in other books but to whom he makes no reference in this one-was establishing Hull House, which she proclaimed would have “no religious affiliations” and where “one of the first lessons” she learned was “that private beneficence was totally inadequate.”

The injection of government into, and the removal of moral content from, the project of helping the needy were two sides of the same coin, which, like a coin, confirmed Gresham’s Law: bad philanthropy would drive out good. Professional, impersonal, scientific, secular organizations would drive out authentic, community-based, morally guided service to the needy. A political message would drive out a moral one. Philanthropy would drift from the task of helping individuals to that of representing them, from the task of reforming individuals to that of reforming the world.

Between society and a panhandler, the voluntary associations of civil society would stand facing the panhandler, addressing him by name, counseling him to have faith in God and himself, to take a bath, to quit drinking. The progressives turned away from the panhandler. They faced us. They told us it is we who must change. In particular, we must supply funding, through charitable giving and taxes, for the
administration of a multitude of programs that employ a multitude of program administrators. The panhandler is a victim of addiction, of racism, of unemployment, of hunger, of inadequate funding of education, housing, and rehabilitation, of a lack of self-esteem, of manifold unmet needs that prevail in an uncaring social order. What can he do about such problems?

In the prose and poetry with which Bremner represents modern thinking on philanthropy there is nothing on which to base a discussion of the ideology of progressives that came to dominate the organization and administration of philanthropy. If he cites any criticism, it is of wealthy donors, portrayed as philanthropic dilettantes, but not of the welfare state mentality that has vastly expanded the population of an underclass characterized by a rejection of the very gifts-moral responsibility, moderation, civility, faith, hope, and love-that earlier charity sought to give them. Agents of the welfare state, and of private sector organizations modeled on it, knowingly withhold from their clients what every decent man or woman freely shares with any truly cared for friend or relative: the traditional wisdom and morals and manners of the middle class. Victims need not apply.

It is the present and urgent task of philanthropy to save itself from a century of “progress.” The centralizing, bureaucratizing force of progressive ideology has crowded out and delegitimized the once thriving voluntary organizations of civil society. To a great extent, this pernicious trend has been well supported by grant-making institutions of private philanthropy, which disregarded the basic and effective plans proposed by local volunteer groups in favor of the trendy projects of national experts. Worse, it became the strategic objective of several powerful private foundations to use their grants to leverage other funding, with the goal of engaging government support for programs they selected. Great bequests from fortunes built by entrepreneurial genius were thus put to the task of expanding the welfare state.

Foundations and individual donors must turn from this path of demonstrated failure and support every effort to revitalize the institutions of civil society: the family, the church, the civic organizations, and the block clubs. The wonderful American impulse to associate for the pursuit of common goals and good works deserves encouragement and demands respect.

Bremner makes no call for philanthropy to reverse its direction, but in his final chapter, suddenly departing the literary scene, he turns to newspaper clippings he has collected to tell such stories as that of Clara Hale. A poor woman in a poor neighborhood, Clara Hale when in her mid-sixties took in a baby who had become addicted to drugs while in his mother’s womb and went on to found Hale House, a group home for addicted children in Harlem. It was Clara Hale, not an expert, not a bureaucracy, who did this. Had she exercised her citizenship in the modern, tragically devalued sense of that term, Clara Hale would merely have advocated, through voting and political activism, more programs for state-funded professionals to care for these children of God. But she did not turn away from them and speak to society. She held them and spoke their names to them.

Clara Hale’s sense of citizenship, her active and direct participation in service to her fellow man, displays the vibrancy and proves the superiority of civil society. As the supply side for philanthropy continues to grow, let us pray it will be employed to support, and never again to displace, the Clara Hales of this world.

Michael S. Joyce is President of the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation.