on August 11, 2005
This book is a manifesto and an operational guideline. It explains the "third force" of our social-economic system: philanthropy, and its pivotal role in insuring the successful functioning of free-enterprise in the economic sphere and democracy in the political sphere.
The balance struck between capitalism and democracy is what matters, she says. And that balance is struck by acts of generosity.
"Generosity is capitalism's open and pragmatic acknowledgement that, since democracy's freedoms enhance capitalism's economic powers, then democracy deserves assets from capitalism that contribute to its strength." P. 23. "Capitalism needs democracy's value to remain defensible in society. Conversely, democracy needs capitalism's wealth creation for pursuing justice and opportunity for all." (p. 21)
Gaudiani makes the point that philanthropy (including volunteerism and giving) has been a critical component to the success of the American culture. It was particularly strong in the earlier part of the 20th century: during the "Progressive Era." Since 1970, however, the philanthropic urge has dissipated in relative terms. Because the distribution of wealth continues to get more skewed, and with the conservative trend in today's politics and zeitgeist fostering further disparities between rich and poor and the dismantling of social services such as universal health and social security, the need for philanthropy is never before greater.
But the need isn't simply for more dollars to be given. The crisis is in understanding generosity and how it is part of human happiness. A correct understanding of self interest is needed, she says.
We are at a crossroads and a crisis in our sense of philanthropy and generosity, according to Gaudiani. And, with the incredible rise in millionaire families, the next 30 years will see a class of people who face the choice: keep it all for myself and my children, or give some to insure that the society and culture in which I live will continue to thrive and be great.
It is the American tradition of generosity, according to Gaudiani, and not religion, empathy, or social pressure, that is the most likely cultural force that will sustain the philanthropic spirit. P.168.
Gaudiani speaks in terms of universal human values and wisdom (generosity is a value shared by all world cultures), and forcefully shows with example after example how this force operated in US history. Thus, her book is a great example of interpretive speaking for concrete social action. Her words invoke a cultural shift, and disclose a new world of possibility, while showing us that it can be based on beliefs we already hold, and actions that we already do. She does not introduce new metaphysical premises, but merely reframes, reconfigures, and adds emphasis to what is already within our capacity.
The strength of the book is its organic vision of philanthropy as necessary to fulfill democracy in a free enterprise economy; its comprehensive overview of the main areas of social capital (human, physical, and intellectual capital) and the scores of historical examples of how generosity and philanthropy made important investments in social capital; and its pragmatic program, with specific targets for philanthropy (e.g. increased home ownership by the poor) and plethora of possible mechanisms to achieve these targets (e.g. microlending, ROSCAs, matching donation banks, among others).
The questions that went unanswered by Gaudiani's book, for me, are in the realm of psychology and personal, emotional intelligence. Gaudiani speaks to the need for finding that "correct understanding of self interest" where giving, generosity, and concern for the collective is part of one's personal happiness. She references Enlightenment philosophy about living the good and honorable life, and the new direction in 'behavioral economics'. But she is light on detailing the emotional and psychological dimensions of generosity and altruism. How do I embody a generous outlook and make it work in my life? What does my motivation feel like when I pursue my self interest as incorporating the greater good? What do my interpersonal relationships look like? How do I balance my ego's need for recognition and my concern for others? How do I get from co-dependence to interdependence? How do I transcend my fears of not having enough money or not being good enough so that I am compassionate and know a sense of interconnectedness?
Gaudiani's case is compelling from an objective, systems point of view. And I agree, from this standpoint, with her provocative point: America is rich because it is generous (not vice versa). But from the subjective, personal, 'human interior' point of view, I still wonder how I can be generous and successful. From a personal standpoint, it seems, I can't be generous until I am rich. Perhaps the psychological aspects are for another book.
Gaudiani points to the world's culture wisdom traditions as providing the possibilities for restoring generosity as a prominent value in society. Generosity is truly a universal human value. All cultural traditions esteem it highly. The very concept of human being in the Chinese tradition incorporates benevolence. The Hindu concept of Ahimsa includes sharing one's prosperity with others. The Islamic tradition discourages interest and debt-based financial cooperatives in favor of equity sharing arrangements.
Gaudiani suggests that the cultural diversity of the US - with all the wisdom traditions represented here - is a huge untapped asset for bringing forth new understandings of generosity in our culture. This multidimensional value, that interpenetrates all domains of life, can be re-energized in our culture, she suggests, by encouraging the different ethnic traditions to bring it out.
To me this is an area where citizen discussion groups and workshops could play a big role. These programs would have individuals come together to share their experiences and emotions around the realities of making a living, taking care of oneself, and taking care of others. This is a big complex thing for people to work on, and it is better done within groups, not by individually reading a book. If a companion book is to be written to Gaudiani's important current book, it would be a guidebook for discussion groups to unpack these many personal, life history, and cultural aspects around self interest, the pursuit of happiness, and cultural renewal.