Charity Begins at Home, by Teresa Odendahl
Most people regard philanthropy—the giving away of one’s own resources to worthy causes—as a virtue. Yet in Charity Begins at Home, Teresa Odendahl accuses philanthropists of deploying their gifts solely in order to make the world safe and pleasant for themselves. An anthropologist and a consultant to nonprofit organizations, she finds that “For many of the wealthy, charity means preventing infection or decay, maintaining a clean society.” She even goes so far as to find charity a fundamental prop of an unfair social system: “[P]hilanthropy is essential to the maintenance and perpetuation of the upper class in the United States. In this sense, nonprofit activities are the nexus of a modern power elite.”
The very existence of large-scale philanthropy is, of course, a peculiarly American phenomenon. As Odendahl correctly points out, we are unique in the world in freely allowing tax deductions for private charity, and in encouraging (and even expecting) such private charity to accomplish social, educational, and cultural goals that are everywhere else the sole province of government. But for her, government is precisely where such activity belongs: the role of the state in filling human needs is half of a proper public policy; the other half is a far-reaching redistribution of income based on steeply progressive taxation.
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