Book review: Linsey McGoey’s No Such Thing As a Free Gift


Linsey McGoey, a sociologist at the University of Essex, provides a compelling critique of philanthrocapitalism through her analysis, which centres around The Gates Foundation. The book is intended for a wide audience and I think many will benefit from reading McGoey’s critical exploration of philanthrocapitalism because it encourages us to think about the power of these organisations on the world stage and how they might be threatening democracy.

No Such Thing As a Free Gift is an attempt to scrutinise the logic of philanthrocapitalism and to see whether capitalists like Bill Gates really are ‘more results-oriented and more efficient than earlier philanthropic donors’.

The book begins with a closer look at earlier philanthropists, such as Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller, and aims to show that their attitudes and approaches to philanthropy were very similar to those of businessmen like Gates and his supporters, whom McGoey interestingly calls ‘TED Heads’. The rest of the book explores the social implications and consequences of philanthrocapitalist donations.

The Good

The author uses Matthew Bishop and Michael Green’s definition of philanthrocapitalism, which can be found in their book, Philanthrocapitalism: How the Rich Can Save the World (2008). McGoey explains that philanthrocapitalism is seen as

‘a novel way of doing philanthropy, one that emulates the way business is done in the for-profit capitalist world. […] At the macro level, philanthrocapitalism describes the way that capitalism itself can be naturally philanthropic, driving innovation in a way “which tends to benefit everyone, sooner or later, through new products, higher quality and lower prices”’.

The last part of the above quote illustrates the belief upon which philanthrocapitalism is based: that trickle down economics ‘are our best answer for combating growing economic and social inequalities’. Its supporters argue that, for example, Bill Gates’ billions, which he earned from Microsoft, will eventually be beneficial to other members of society. They claim that philanthrocapitalism can solve the world’s most pressing issues, especially as some of the world’s richest choose to set up foundations to help alleviate poverty and eradicate disease.

What this view ignores is that individuals like Bill Gates, whose net worth of $83.9 billion is well above the GDP of many third world countries, were able to rise to financial prosperity precisely because of capitalism, an economic system which could not function without inequality.

One of the book’s most important claims, therefore, is that philanthrocapitalism cannot mitigate ‘the very inequalities that its own presence might be inadvertently compounding’. This means that philanthrocapitalism might never be able to eradicate economic and social inequality because the philanthropists are themselves ‘inadvertently’ causing these.

One of the book’s main strengths lies in its in-depth exploration of the philanthropic projects of the Gates Foundation and the organisation’s lack of ‘accountability and transparency’. McGoey writes:

‘The Gates Foundation […] provides 10 per cent of the World Health Organization’s overall budget. In 2013 it emerged as the largest single donor to the UN health agency, donating more than the US government. According to its charter, the WHO is meant to be accountable to member governments. The Gates Foundation, on the other hand, is accountable to no one other than its three trustees: Bill, Melinda, and Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffett. Many civil society organisations fear the WHO’s independence is compromised when a significant proportion of its budget comes from a private philanthropic organisation with the power to stipulate exactly where and how the UN institution spends its money.’

Another reason why this book deserves to be read by anyone remotely interested in politics and democracy is its brilliant illustration of the power that philanthropic organisations undemocratically wield in global decision making, something which is also evident in the above quote.

The Not So Good

However, one of the book’s weaknesses is McGoey’s suggestion that the philanthropic activities of The Gates Foundation are driven by the desire to accumulate more money, either for the trustees or for other corporations involved in these activities. When looking at the net worth of Bill Gates it becomes clear to me that money is not the incentive.

Instead, I believe that magnates like Gates, through their philanthropic foundations, seek to accumulate political power in order to have a say in health, economic and education policy in the USA and abroad. As I have mentioned above, McGoey is well aware of this, and yet she does not directly consider that the end goal of individuals like Gates is none other than to have political power, but without the accountability and transparency we expect from traditional political actors.

Why does this book matter?

The importance of this book lies in its ability to make you question the benevolence of philanthrocapitalists. While McGoey also recognises the positive impact philanthropy has had in third world countries, such as almost eradicating polio, the book will make you think about the purpose of philanthropy in a society where inequality is entrenched into and vital for the survival of the capitalist system.

Rating: 3.5/5

What are your views about philanthropy in general and philanthrocapitalism? I look forward to reading your thoughts in the comments section.

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