Effective Self-Justification: Charity and the Crisis of Political Service at Stanford
By Nick Burns
A recent article in the Stanford Daily extolled the virtues of the effective altruism movement for Stanford students who wish to maximize the amount of “good” that they do for the world. Effective altruists argue that Stanford students should “earn to give” by taking the most lucrative jobs they can get and then donating as much of their salaries as possible to the most effective charities. As the author argues, “earning to give” is more effective than other work because it’s not replaceable. Nonprofit and government workers, on the other hand, are often replaceable, goes the argument, because if they quit their jobs, someone else would do the work just as effectively. In contrast, a well-paid software engineer who donates her salary to well-run charities is far less replaceable, because whoever might replace her in this role is unlikely to give similar amounts of money to charity.
If we set aside the internal logic of this movement, and the various forms of self-interest that might motivate it (a friend once described effective altruism as a “modern form of papal indulgences,” a reference to the fee the medieval rich paid to the Church to free their souls from purgatory) — what are the potential consequences of this radical philosophy?
Effective altruism may prompt those Stanford students already dead-set on making piles of money to donate more and more intentionally than they would otherwise. However, if it is is widely adopted by Stanford graduates, it may cause more harm than good to society.
First, it is important to recognize that the act of donating large sums — whether to a government, to a charity institution, to a university — always comes in exchange for some amount of power over that institution. The more money you donate, the more disproportionate that power is. A case in point: Stanford professor Rob Reich referred to Bill Gates as the “unelected superintendent” of the boards of education in several school districts as a result of his generous donations. An LA Times article discusses how many schools near Denver downsized in order to receive Bill Gates’s money, with mixed consequences.
The fact that Gates is generally admitted to have the best of intentions doesn’t change the possibility that his schemes might fail to public detriment. This poses a worrying question: would it be possible to curb his influence if it were shown to lead to failures in government? An elected official could be deposed if her policies failed. While government bureaucrats are not elected, they are still subject to indirect democratic checks through the sovereignty of elected officials and their appointees. (We saw this demonstrated, for better or worse, in the resignation of top State Department officials at the command of the Trump administration.) But wealthy donors hold no official positions. They cannot be so easily removed from power if their policies fail.
Even more worryingly, what if not all donors really had everyone’s best interests at heart? Since we’ve seen how, for big donors, philanthropy is also a passport to power, it’s quite possible for someone to enter the realm of philanthropy as a committed effective altruist, but, once in the possession of power, become corrupt. The fact that the professions that effective altruists tend to take up — finance, etc. — are not, it is generally admitted, altruistic, has prompted the New York Times’ David Brooks to worry that adherents might lose track of their moral goals after decades of ruthless striving for gain on the job. This could very well lead them to wield their power over the institutions they donate to in a selfish or otherwise less-than-altruistic way.
In this last case, the outlook is grim: Stanford students who originally set out to do the most good for the world end up possessing disproportionate and undemocratic political power. We would then be forced to weigh the positive consequences of their benevolence, such as decreased mortality from malaria, against the negative consequences. These might include a worsening of some of the most serious crises of politics in America and the world today, which include a widening gap in political power between rich and poor, and the undermining of democratic checks on power. There’s also another problem that effective altruism promises to aggravate: waning trust in politics.
American faith in government has been fading for decades and is now at a historic low. The prognosis for a representative democracy in which few trust their representatives or their president is surely not good. Enter effective altruism: by dismissing politicians as “replaceable,” it both diminishes public respect for careers in government and also aims to convince bright Stanford students to spend the bulk of their working lives not serving others but rather making money. This makes a bad situation worse. Unlike in Britain, where studying at the country’s best universities often leads to a career in public service through politics, a staggering three-quarters of Stanford students end up working for profit. It’s a tragedy of our education system that, generation after generation, our country’s brightest minds choose to dedicate their lives to the societally unconcerned (if economically fecund) professions of business and finance.
None of this is to diminish the positive social effects of the goodwill of wealthy individuals, to which I myself owe my chance to attend Stanford. We should appreciate the influence of wealthy donors in the world and in our own lives, from John Arrillaga to old Leland Stanford, but also avoid conflating their donations with political service: the act of directly serving one’s community through government.
Compare Stanford with ancient Athens, the birthplace of democracy, where the best minds of each generation would choose to dedicate their lives to the community by serving in government. Professing a love of their political communities, they aimed to strengthen those communities and improve the lives of their citizens by better ordering the government. They were democratically elected and their power was tempered by the people, who would remove them from office if they did not succeed.
If Stanford graduates want to do good in the Greek sense and serve their communities, they should emulate Stanford alumnus and Stockton mayor Michael Tubbs by returning to their native political communities and attempting to improve citizens’ lives through service in government. It’s the best way we can, as Stanford students, help staunch the crisis of faith in American government. If we acquire power through politics, it will be subject to democratic checks, and therefore less liable to worsen political inequality, than the power of massive wealth — even if that wealth is wielded with the benevolent intent of an effective altruist.