For those of you who don’t know him, Bill Schambra is the director of the Bradley Center for Philanthropy and Civic Renewal at the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank located in Washington, DC. In addition to being, in my view, a man of enormous integrity, he’s also a brilliant thinker and writer. (He certainly needs no endorsement from me; he’d be better off without it.)
Here’s Bill Schambra, writing on the Carnegie Corporation’s support for eugenics in the early part of the last century:
North Carolina has been transfixed this past summer by the gripping, tragic testimony of victims of its eugenics program, which forcibly sterilized some 7,600 state residents from 1929 to 1974.
On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, it might be instructive to recall that foundation’s contribution to North Carolina’s shameful past.*
If you read Mr. Schambra’s article, you will learn that a certain Frederick Osborn, a Carnegie trustee, was able to secure several grants from the Carnegie Corporation to establish a department of eugenics at the Bowman Gray (now Wake Forest) School of Medicine. The unhappy story unfolds from there.
What’s striking about the way Schambra tells this story is that he could have blamed the Carnegie Corporation for bad science—there was scientific opposition to eugenics from its very earliest days; or he could have blamed the Corporation for pandering to a trustee. Instead he blames Carnegie for seeking after the root causes of our social ills. He writes:
Why did eugenics have such an appeal to our first major modern philanthropists?
Because, as Carnegie famously argued, they believed that most previous giving had been “indiscriminate charity … spent as to encourage the slothful, the drunken, the unworthy,” without addressing the underlying circumstances that produced such conditions.
The new philanthropies, by contrast, were animated by “a search for cause, an attempt to cure evils at their source,” according to the words of John D. Rockefeller.
And this search for root causes, Schambra argues, is philanthropic hubris at its worst. Foundations should stop doing root causes philanthropy because—and I swear on a copy of Carnegie’s Gospel of Wealth that this is essentially Schambra’s entire argument—“after a century of trying one approach after another, it would be difficult to identify a single significant social problem to the roots of which philanthropy has penetrated, thereby finally resolving it.”*
It’s an easy thing for some to wave aside philanthropy’s contributions to the Green Revolution in Mexico, to ending forced segregation in the United States, and to developing the Salk vaccine, among other efforts. “[A]fter a century of frantic and futile pursuit of ultimate answers,” argues Mr. Schambra, “it’s time to reconsider charity as a more sensible alternative.”* Yet I submit that the problem of food production in Mexico would not have been effectively addressed by providing soup kitchens for Mexican peasants. We would still have forced segregation in the United States if instead of demanding justice, our African American neighbors had collected donations to spruce up their “separate but equal” schools. And that similarly, our children might still be unprotected from polio if donors had insisted on buying crutches rather than vaccine research.
It’s true that these efforts have not ended hunger or racism or disease once and for all, but that’s not what “root causes” philanthropists have claimed.
Suppose we were to take Mr. Schambra’s message to the thousands of protestors who are now in the streets in 70 major cities and 600 communities across the country. They would be relieved to hear that the financial crisis and subsequent bailout; that the widening gap between rich and poor; that the part of our national treasure squandered on a pointless war in Iraq—that all of these social ills had no discernible causes. Finding themselves entirely outside the causal nexus, these protestors could, with good conscience, simply pack up their sleeping bags and go home.
Sorry, Bill. Like an airplane made entirely of meat, your argument just can’t get off the ground.
* June 25, 2007, op-ed in The Chronicle of Philanthropy