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Obviously we’ve all been thinking a lot lately about Tocqueville’s problem of the democratic state recognizing no other institutions as roughly coequal sources of social legitimacy and power. Society needs what Neuhaus and Berger called “mediating institutions” that preserve some social space between the state and the individual. Alone against the state, the naked individual has no hope—so much so that the will of the state becomes identified with the general good and the individual ceases even to be able to think in terms where resistance could be legitimate.

There’s one passage in Tocqueville that puts this issue in stark relief. Tocqueville points out that in the old European aristocracies, the minor nobility used to serve as zones of relative resistance to the king. The princes and dukes and whatnot would collect around them, in their households and social spheres, all the people who were out of favor with the king. Tocqueville was worried because in a democracy, while there were many mediating institutions worthy of celebration (the family, the church, voluntary associations, etc.) there were no institutions  of the same kind as the state that nonetheless stood apart from the state, as a duke holds a station  of the same kind as a king yet stands apart from him.

Why does “of the same kind” matter? Because that’s what prevents the big authority from interfering too much with the little authority. No doubt there is much a king can do to harass the minor nobility, but there are limits—because if the king fails to respect the duke’s title, why should anyone respect the king’s title?

Now, the practical question becomes: what institutions is the democratic state unable to “mess with” too much without undermining its own authority? And I think I have what may be one useful answer: grantmaking foundations.

The sanctity of property and exchange is one of the bedrock principles of modern society. This is why modernity has done so much to liberate us - only modernity challenges the Aristotelian master/slave relationship between the vast majority who do economic work for a living (and who are therefore, in the premodern view, fit only for slavery) and the small minority in the leisure class (the natural masters, in the premodern view). Robert Miller has uncovered how deeply embedded this master/slave rubric continues to be in Alasdair MacIntyre.  Even Richard Weaver identified property rights as the last bastion of metaphysical thinking.

This implies philanthropists and grantmaking foundations could become more intentional about serving as mediating institutions and cultivating alternative social space against the dominance of the state. The idea is not so much to oppose the state as such - though that is often necessary. The more fundamental task is to insist that the will of the state is not identical with the good of society (or, for that matter, the will of society). The deployment of financial giving to create this space might be a path forward to reestablish social space the state can’t control.

I’m aware that efforts have been brewing to come after grantmaking foundations with the long arm of the law. There have been various threats to take away their tax exempt status unless they obey the state in various ways. So far, however, philanthropists have been successful in fending off such efforts. Why? If I’m right, it’s because the democratic state can’t mess too much with people’s right to do as they will with their own money without undermining its own legitimacy. The bond markets notice such things. And the threat to legitimacy is doubly effective when people are giving money away to serve good causes.

I am not predicting that these proposals will never be enacted. Just because one side has a strong natural advantage doesn’t mean it will always win. But I am suggesting that philanthropists and foundations may have more power than they think - and an opportunity to serve their country and their world in ways much more ambitious than they may ever have dreamed.

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