Friday, September 16, 2011
Rob E. Atkinson, Jr., Ruden, McClosky, Smith, Schuster & Russell Professor at the Florida State University College of Law, has recently posted four papers on SSRN. Below I reproduce the title of each article, accompanied by its abstract:
Philanthropy today has reached an impasse, in both theory and practice. This article maps a way beyond that impasse by taking us back to philanthropy’s core function and traditional values. The standard academic model sees philanthropy as subordinate and supplemental to our society’s other public sectors, the market and the state, and uses their metrics to measure its performance. Current law, best reflected in the federal income tax code, closely parallels that perspective. This article proposes to reverse the dominant theoretical perspective and reveal a radically different relationship among society’s three public sectors, the market, the state, and the philanthropic. Following both classical western philosophy and the West’s three Abrahamist faiths, this perspective places philanthropy first and measures everything, including our current economic and political systems, by a neo-classical philanthropic standard: the highest good of all humankind.
This essay lays the groundwork for a “new unified field theory” of philanthropy. That theory must have two complementary parts, an account of philanthropy’s core function and a measure of its performance, a metric for comparing philanthropic organizations both among themselves and with their counterparts in the for-profit, governmental, and household sectors. The essay first explains the need for such a measure, in both theory and practice. It then considers the critical shortcomings of today’s standard theory of philanthropy, which accounts for the philanthropic sector as subordinate and supplementary to our capitalist market economy and liberal democratic polity. Chief among the limits of standard theory is taking the ends of that economy and polity, satisfying aggregate consumer demand and majority voter preference, as given. After showing how this critical assumption begs the basic normative questions of classical political and ethical theory, this essay outlines a way of reconciling the two in a neo-classical theory of philanthropy. In that theory, the goal of both the market and the state, guided by philanthropy, would be to ensure all citizens the fullest possible development of their best abilities. That regime would require no one to agree with its goals and values, but it would give everyone every possible opportunity to be able to appreciate them.
This paper undertakes a detailed analysis of today’s standard theory of the philanthropic sector, in order to provide a new model that is both more accurate in its details and more comprehensive in its scope. The standard theory accounts for the philanthropic sector as subordinate and supplementary to our capitalist market economy and liberal democratic polity. That approach has two basic short-comings: Its explanation of both the state and philanthropy as adjuncts to the market fails to appreciate the ways in which all three sectors support and supplement each other. Even more basically, the standard model’s primary focus on the market ignores how the demands that we make on both the state and the market ultimately derive from value systems the philanthropic sector not only gives us, but also shapes us to accept. From this perspective, the philanthropic sector functions, not as an adjunct to the state and the market, under their standards of consumer demand and majority preference, but rather as both their foundation and their metric.
Tax theorists have long debated the rationales for the federal income tax system’s favorable treatment of philanthropy. The debate has certainly become more sophisticated, but it has nonetheless failed to produce anything near full convergence of opinion. This article reviews that debate and reaches a paradoxical conclusion: Although the present system of exemption and deduction is perhaps impossible to justify in any other way, that system almost perfectly co-ordinates three basic features of American society: the populist and anti-statist sources of American philanthropy, the consumerist orientation of our form of market capitalism, and our tax system’s reliance on income as its principal revenue source.
To say that the Code’s treatment of philanthropy accommodates these three features well, however, is not to say that any of them is itself good; as an alternative to the current system’s fundamental populism and consumerism, this paper proposes a neo-classically republican view of the public good, grounded in the constitutional values of justice and general welfare. Philanthropy’s core function will be to promote those values. This, in turn, implies not only a very different tax treatment of philanthropy, but also a very different relationship between philanthropy and the state. The Code implicitly endorses the philanthropy of Jacksonian democracy and consumerist capitalism; the philanthropy of both Jefferson and Lincoln’s republicanism would look quite different (and much more like that of Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Ethics and Politics). It would better fit both the neo-classically republican elements of our constitutional culture and what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.”