Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Civic Equality

University Diaries has celebrated this editorial from Inside Higher Ed about the so-called ''philanthropy'' of giving endowments to elite universities that seek out the children of millionaire's children of millionaire's children, etc. Why give endowments to Harvard, who doesn't need them, and whose students are largely from the upper classes, and then call it ''charity''?

Best passage:
''I am becoming less and less tolerant of people who pass wealth on to the privileged and masquerade it as philanthropy. Philanthropy is the voluntary act of donating money, goods or services to a charitable cause, intended to promote good or improve human well being. When a billionaire gives money that will benefit people who are more than likely already well off or who already have access to huge sums of money, attending the ninth richest university by endowment, this is not philanthropy. This simply extends the gross inequities that exist in our country — inequities that one day will come home to roost.''

It gets at something I've been wondering about lately- perhaps the problem isn't that there are poor people in America; there are probably always going to be poor people in free market capitalist societies. But I think the problem is one of civic equality instead of social equality- that is the poor and the rich now live in radically different worlds, whereas they used to live in a shared society through shared civic institutions that don't really exist any longer. Corny as it sounds today, in my Grandfather's day, the poor could follow steps X, Y, and Z (provided they were white) and become middle class, and their kids could follow steps X, Y, and Z and become upper middle class. I think the reason that social mobility has declined so sharply is that civic interaction has all but ended. Being up to my neck in the French Revolution right now, I'm a bit skeptical that a society with almost no social mobility and an increasingly useless inherited upper class (and what else would you call Paris Hilton but the product of a decadent aristocracy?) is built to last.

Perhaps what people should be working for isn't just ''social justice'' but ''civic justice'' or even ''cultural justice'' of some sort.


Holly said...

Presumably as the middle class migrates more decisively toward a binary rich/not rich status, we'll see social upheaval again. However, as long as the idle rich are venerated as celebrities and heroes (as if inheriting wealth is some kind of personal accomplishment) it's unlikely to turn into full on revolution. And, if it does, by then the rich will have disarmed the poor, and it will come back to throwing paving stones. Then the private militia of the rich will slaughter the essentially defenseless poor, and then fun truly begins at that point, because there won't be anyone left to sanitize public telephones. The rich need to make a point of continuing to court intellectuals.

Rufus said...

And the left will presumably continue their important work of boycotting Starbucks and making puppets for anti-WTO rallies I suppose...

I think class warfare is actually most likely to come from the sinking middle class who are certainly the most bitterly aggrieved group in the U.S. They just need a demogogue- my money's on Lou Dobbs for il Duce.