Many people would prefer that, but I suspect many of them have no idea how vastly ineffective that would be at providing the level of safety net that we expect as a society (cue “richest society on earth” sayings).
During 2009, while private charity collapsed, automatic stabilizers expanded rapidly, from 0.1 percent of GDP to 2.2 percent of GDP—or a number roughly akin to all charitable giving in the United States. This was directly targeted at areas that suffered from the most unemployment, and helped those most in need—efforts that, as we’ve seen, private charity does only partially. As Goldman Sachs economists concluded, this shift made a crucial difference, and, alongside the government’s efforts to prevent the collapse of the banking sector and the Federal Reserve’s expansion of monetary policy, was a core reason the Great Recession didn’t become a second Great Depression.
With this in mind, we can examine why voluntary efforts fail consistently. Despite the general under-theorizing of the voluntary sector, the scholar Lester Salamon in the 1980s did build a theory of “voluntary failures” to contrast with market and government failures. There are three parts to the theory that especially stand out in the wake of the Great Recession.
The first is what Salamon describes as philanthropic insufficiency . This occurs when the voluntary sector can’t generate enough resources to provide social insurance at a sufficient scale, which, as noted, is exactly what happened in 2008. There is also the problem here of geographic coverage. As Hoover discovered, charity will exist in some places more abundantly than in others; the government has the ability to provide a more universal baseline of coverage.
But it isn’t just about the business cycle. A second issue Salamon identified is philanthropic particularism . Private charity has a tendency to focus only on specific groups, particularly groups that are considered either “deserving” or similar in-groups. Indeed, in one telling, this is the entire point of private charity. The largest single category of charitable giving in the United States goes not to caring for the poor but for the sustenance of religious institutions (at 32 percent of donations). Using very generous assumptions, Indiana University’s Center for Philanthropy finds that only one-third of charitable giving actually goes to the poor. Almost by definition, there will be people who need access to social insurance who will be left out of such targeted giving.
The third element of voluntary failure relevant here is philanthropic paternalism . Instead of charity representing a purely spontaneous response by civil society, or a community of equals responding to issues in the commons, there is, in practice, a disproportionate amount of power that rests in the hands of those with the greatest resources. This narrow control of charitable resources, in turn, channels aid toward the interests and needs of those who already hold large amounts of power. Prime examples of this voluntary failure can be seen in the amount of charitable giving that goes to political advocacy, or to elite colleges in order to help secure admission for already privileged children, even as the needs of the truly desperate go unmet.
At a basic level, much of our elite charitable giving is about status signaling, especially in donations to elite cultural and educational institutions. And much of it is also about political mobilization to pursue objectives favorable to rich elites. As the judge Richard Posner once wrote, a charitable foundation “is a completely irresponsible institution, answerable to nobody” that closely resembles a hereditary monarchy. Why would we put our entire society’s ability to manage the deadly risks we face in the hands of such a creature?