High stakes instrumentalism and billionaire philanthropy

by Halstead3 min read19th Jul 202010 comments


Many have argued that billionaire philanthropy is objectionably undemocratic. For example, Anand Giridharadas writes:

“When a society helps people through its shared democratic institutions [as opposed to private charitable foundations], it does so on behalf of all, and in a context of equality. Those institutions, representing free and equal citizens, are making a collective choice of whom to help and how. Those who receive help are not only objects of the transaction, but also subjects of it—citizens with agency. When help is moved into the private sphere, no matter how efficient we are told it is, the context of the helping is a relationship of inequality: the giver and the taker, the helper and the helped, the donor and the recipient.”

There have been other criticisms of these arguments by Scott Alexander and from Cullen O’Keefe. I think one additional point is worth making. The point of view expressed by Giridharadas, Rob Reich and others has almost no support from within mainstream political philosophy, at least as a criticism of effective altruist billionaire philanthropy. The reason for this is that almost all mainstream political philosophers endorse a view I call High Stakes Instrumentalism, which permits the use of undemocratic procedures, such as billionaire philanthropy, in order to avoid high stakes errors.

[Cross-post from my blog]

High Stakes Instrumentalism

When studying for my doctoral thesis, I set out to argue for an instrumentalist defence of political procedures: I argued that we should use democratic procedures if and only if doing so produced the best results. Upon approaching the topic for the first time, I expected to find the field to be split broadly into two camps: pure instrumentalists and pure intrinsic proceduralists who argued that democracy is intrinsically valuable or intrinsically just and so should be used even if it does not produce the best results.

However, what I actually found was that political philosophers were broadly divided into pure instrumentalists and proponents of hybrids of instrumentalism and intrinsic proceduralism. Even proponents of the latter type of view endorse a theory I call High Stakes Instrumentalism:

High Stakes Instrumentalism = For all cases in which we can feasibly use either a political procedure in the set of procedures S1, or a procedure in the set of procedures S2, and all procedures in the set S1 would produce high stakes errors if used, but those in S2 would not, we ought, for instrumentalist reasons, to use a procedure in S2 rather than S1.

More informally, High Stakes Instrumentalism is the idea that if we can use undemocratic procedures to prevent high stakes political errors, then we ought to do so, even though those procedures are undemocratic.

The boundary of high stakes error is usually drawn somewhat fuzzily at policies that violate rights to subsistence or an economic minimum, or basic liberal rights. For example, Joshua Cohen argues,

“Decisions should also be substantively just, according to some reasonable conception of justice, and effective at advancing the general welfare. But a principle of political equality states norms that will normally override other considerations, apart from the most fundamental requirements of justice.”[^1]

And Tom Christiano writes:

“[Democratic] institutions are partly evaluated by whether they manage to protect democracy, liberal rights, and the economic minimum. But beyond these there is no agreement on justice in law and policy in terms of which we can evaluate democracy from the egalitarian standpoint. Therefore, with the exception of these, democracy will be entirely intrinsically justified from the egalitarian standpoint.”[^2]

I discussed the popularity of High Stakes Instrumentalism in a paper in Ethical Theory and Moral Practice. The only prominent political philosopher to deny High Stakes Instrumentalism was arguably the Jeremy Waldron of Law and Disagreement, but even he explicitly came to accept High Stakes Instrumentalism a few years later.[^3] In general, it seems as though High Stakes Instrumentalism is a principle which any prima facie plausible democratic theory ought to accept. It appears to be very difficult to defend the view that majorities have the right to violate fundamental rights or to be tyrannous to minorities. Thus, while denying High Stakes Instrumentalism is an option, it is not a palatable one. Indeed, the fact that almost all democratic theorists accept High Stakes Instrumentalism provides some indication of its intuitive strength.

Does political theory condemn billionaire philanthropy?

Billionaire philanthropy is undoubtedly politically inegalitarian and undemocratic. When Bill Gates decides to spend $1m on vaccinations in poor countries, he has unequal influence over that decision. If he were to make this decision democratically, he would put it in a fund and have the US electorate (or maybe all global citizens) vote on what to do with the money.

However, if High Stakes Instrumentalism is true, Gates’ influence over how this money is spent is not objectionable, as long as his control over it prevents high stakes errors. Gates spends substantial portions of his philanthropic money on direct global health aid and on global health research, such as research into vaccines. Open Philanthropy spends its money on saving and improving the lives of people in extremely poor countries; reducing the risk of pandemics; campaigning against horrific abuse of animals in factory farms, and so on. If this money and that of other impact-focused philanthropists were instead under the control of the American democratic system, it would not be spent on these priorities. Some would be spent on farm subsidies, some on wars in the Middle East, some on income support for people in high-income countries, and so on. There would, in short, be far more high stakes errors if this money were under democratic control.

Thus, while billionaire philanthropy may well be undemocratic, it would be incorrect to conclude that a substantial fraction of political philosophers believe it is therefore necessarily illegitimate. In fact, almost all democratic theorists accept that billionaire philanthropy is morally required, provided the money is spent wisely.

The same argument cannot be made for ineffective or harmful billionaire philanthropy. Many billionaire philanthropists donate money to projects with negligible social benefit, such as concert halls at their old university. Others, such as the Koch brothers attempt to cast doubt on the science on climate change. But this should not indict billionaire philanthropists who spend their money effectively on pressing global problems, such as Gates, Open Philanthropy, Hewlett, Children’s Investment Fund, and Bloomberg.

As Rob Reich has argued, billionaire philanthropy does deserve scrutiny in a democratic society. But this scrutiny does not mean that billionaire philanthropy should be placed under democratic control. Rather it should be focused on convincing philanthropists that the world is not, as most of them seem to think, a canvas on which to paint their personality, but is something full of huge problems that they ought to help solve by spending their resources in a careful and rational way.

[^1]: Joshua Cohen, Philosophy, Politics, Democracy : Selected Essays (Cambridge, Mass; London: Harvard University Press, 2009), 271–72.

[^2]: [Thomas Christiano, The Constitution of Equality: Democratic Authority and Its Limits (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 73.

[^3]: Jeremy Waldron, “Disagreement and Response,” Israel Law Review 39 (2006): 64–65.