Winners Take All: Modern philanthropy means that giving some away is more important than how you got it

Originally published at:


Oscar Wilde had this issue with philanthropy pegged over a century ago as well.

The emotions of man are stirred more quickly than man’s intelligence; and, as I pointed out some time ago in an article on the function of criticism, it is much more easy to have sympathy with suffering than it is to have sympathy with thought. Accordingly, with admirable, though misdirected intentions, they very seriously and very sentimentally set themselves to the task of remedying the evils that they see. But their remedies do not cure the disease: they merely prolong it. Indeed, their remedies are part of the disease.

They try to solve the problem of poverty, for instance, by keeping the poor alive; or, in the case of a very advanced school, by amusing the poor.

But this is not a solution: it is an aggravation of the difficulty. The proper aim is to try and reconstruct society on such a basis that poverty will be impossible. And the altruistic virtues have really prevented the carrying out of this aim. Just as the worst slave-owners were those who were kind to their slaves, and so prevented the horror of the system being realised by those who suffered from it, and understood by those who contemplated it, so, in the present state of things in England, the people who do most harm are the people who try to do most good; and at last we have had the spectacle of men who have really studied the problem and know the life – educated men who live in the East End – coming forward and imploring the community to restrain its altruistic impulses of charity, benevolence, and the like. They do so on the ground that such charity degrades and demoralises. They are perfectly right. Charity creates a multitude of sins.

There is also this to be said. It is immoral to use private property in order to alleviate the horrible evils that result from the institution of private property. It is both immoral and unfair


The virtues of the poor may be readily admitted, and are much to be regretted. We are often told that the poor are grateful for charity. Some of them are, no doubt, but the best amongst the poor are never grateful. They are ungrateful, discontented, disobedient, and rebellious. They are quite right to be so. Charity they feel to be a ridiculously inadequate mode of partial restitution, or a sentimental dole, usually accompanied by some impertinent attempt on the part of the sentimentalist to tyrannise over their private lives. Why should they be grateful for the crumbs that fall from the rich man’s table? They should be seated at the board, and are beginning to know it.


Non-modern philanthropy paid for my education. You won’t hear me complaining.

EDIT: Actually, isn’t the 19th century modern?

Yeah, the 19th century is modern… pretty much everything after the age of revolutions is considered the modern period by historians. I’d guess that in another 100 years, we’ll periodize things differently, but that’s where we stand today.


This book sounds like the equivalent of the 85 theses for the 21st century: No, you cannot buy forgiveness of your sins if you don’t truly repent from them and mend your ways. No indulgence for you!


This isn’t “trickle-down” wealth, this is wealth coming down like beam weapons and kinetic penetrators, targeted on pet causes (good and very bad) and anything that might threaten market-world.

Like Fra Jad, we need to change the narrative.


Ray Anderson is a good example of how to change things with your business, rather than using your riches to try to correct some of the problems you caused:

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But also the reason other people didn’t get one.

Philanthropy pays about half my salary, and when I see the corporations attached to the names on our board it makes me ill.

Part of this is the way the world works. An individual CEO choosing sackcloth and ashes isn’t going to fix anything, and in defense of some billionaires, I agree that unilateral disarmament is stupid. Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos are bad people on the balance, but better that money in their hands than in the hands of another Sheldon Adelson or Koch.

But if there are billionaires really willing to fix this problem, they need to spend that money, not on ego projects, but on politics. The Adelsons and Kochs know that. And I am still waiting to see evidence of that.


Wonderful analogy!

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Warning: if you’re going to buy this, there’s a “sponsored” crapbook with the same title that comes up first; “Zip Reads Summary and Analysis” or some garbage. I was able to file for refund, however:

Dammit! I wanted to include a link to the Amazon instructions for returning a kindle purchase, which are not trivial. But every time I do, and every way I try, Discourse is mangling the url (perhaps to try and add Boing Boing’s affiliate codes?) and as a result the url doesn’t work.


The url is
[slash] help
[slash] customer
[slash] display.html
[question mark] nodeId=201252620


Apparently ZIPreads got kicked from the first position when enough people discovered it had little to do with the actual book, which now comes up first. If I wanted a poorly written Cliffs Notes, I’d get one; unfortunately, these scraped compilations infest much of Amazon.

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To historians, “Modern” means “post Renaissance” and that definition is not changing in academic works.

Not a big distinction, as “Renaissance” can be spread over a few hundred years if you like, including Gutenberg, which made the Reformation and the rise of anti-aristocratic revolutions inevitable. IMHO.

But it really goes much deeper than this. There is an entire social culture of charity and 'giving that seems self-deluded. If you are the one in control - then ‘giving back’ is just leaving a tip for your privilege.


You’re replying to an academic historian, BTW.


No, no, it’s fine. I’m over it.

[ETA] And to be fair, the renaissance period is the early modern period, but I think there are important distinctions in the period after the age of revolutions that makes it distinct. So, sure I’ll concede that the periodization is the modern period more generally, with both eras considered part of a larger whole. But then again, not all historians agree with that assessment, and the current historical period we’re living through is part of a larger set of processes STILL working itself out (the age of capitalism, modernity, industrialization, environmental awareness, globalization, what have you). I suspect, as I said, that 100 or 200 years from now (if people still exist, that is), we’ll chop up these time periods in very different ways, since it’s always relative to our current moment.




The fixed nature of “modern” was woman-splained to me by a college history professor in 1977. She actually held me up to class for my “common error” of thinking that “modern” meant “since industrialization” and indeed made a bit of fun because I was out-of-place there, taking one of my six half-courses of liberal arts allowed during an engineering degree. That it was an “engineer’s view of the world” that “modern” meant “since you engineers changed everything with steam engines”. That it was vastly more important that minds had been freed from blind obedience to popes, kings and princes, after which the rise of learning and science followed, that physical modernity was inevitable after mental modernity. And that this use of “modern” in history texts pre-dated most of my industrialization. (I remember she said “your industrialization” as if 19-year-old me had been there with James Watt.) It went on for several minutes while everybody looked around smugly at the Dumb Materialistic Engineer, so I tend to remember it.

This was an introductory class and we’re talking a simple categorization of Pre-Historic / Classical / Medieval / Renaissance / Modern as about all the eras there were. Or can remember 40 years later. (20 years later, I read Gimpel’s “The Medieval Machine” and realized that the whole understanding of the medieval period as scientific stagnation was oversimplified, that categorization of eras itself is probably a limiting way of looking at history, which is a continuum…anyway…)

It turns out I don’t understand the term “mansplaining”, either. In Internet forums it’s impossible to talk over somebody trying to speak, which I’d thought was the meaning of it. As thought-provoking as it is to be crapped on four decades later for echoing back a perhaps-oversimplified factoid I got from a female professor, I of course apologize for giving offense.

Apologies tendered, I’ll exercise the same wisdom I picked up from that class: what a great time to shut up.


Ray Anderson’s company, Interface, is on track to reach “zero harm” by 2020, 88% renewably powered manufacturing and more than 90% reduction of ghgs since 1996 as of 2017, and is now embarking on a new plan to make carpets that remove carbon from the atmosphere, to be not only carbon neutral but carbon negative. They already have at least one product that does just that Proof Positive carpet tile, made from bio plastics which is recyclable to the extent that it is carbon negative for 80-100 years, 4-5 cycles of recycling and their bio plastic backing, CircuitBac Green, is cheaper than even a recycled plastic (vinyl) backing today.

Ray Anderson was a visionary who acted on his vision and his company continues his work.


Thanks for that.