Book of the week: No good deed goes unpunished

Cover of The Givers: Wealth, Power and Philanthropy in a New Gilded AgeThe Givers: Wealth, Power and Philanthropy in a New Gilded Age
By David Callahan
Published by Knopf Publishing, £25
(Buy at Amazon)

Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett have all pledged to give away most or all of their vast fortunes. Unlike previous tycoons, they have taken a hands-on approach to giving, treating philanthropy like an investment. That sounds good, but as David Callahan’s book shows, it gives the rich inordinate clout over public policy. The power of the mega-donors has led “many ordinary Americans to feel marginalised from civic life”, says Daniel Ben-Ami in the Financial Times, as “key decisions on how their communities are run seem to have been ceded to the rich in this new gilded age”. To combat this trend Callahan suggests “stronger watchdogs and greater transparency”, but what is required is more a “democratic renewal that involves the people as a whole”.

Callahan yearns for a rose-tinted past where progress was publicly funded and not dependent on the “munificence and preferences of millionaires”, says Michael Moritz in The Wall Street Journal. But the reality is that philanthropy has always played a role, and must step in when government funding dries up. The hostile reaction of the left to the generosity of such billionaires just goes to show that no good deed goes unpunished.