John Stuart Mill on Why a Free People, to Stay a Free People, Should Do Many Things Outside of Government

Jeff Guo, discussing in the Washington Post the announcement that Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan were setting aside $45 billion to do good in the world through the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, quoted this excerpt from a 2010 Der Spiegel interview with the German billionaire Peter Krämer:

Krämer: I find the US initiative highly problematic. You can write donations off in your taxes to a large degree in the USA. So the rich make a choice: Would I rather donate or pay taxes? The donors are taking the place of the state. That’s unacceptable.

SPIEGEL: But doesn’t the money that is donated serve the common good?

Krämer: It is all just a bad transfer of power from the state to billionaires. So it’s not the state that determines what is good for the people, but rather the rich want to decide. That’s a development that I find really bad. What legitimacy do these people have to decide where massive sums of money will flow?

SPIEGEL: It is their money at the end of the day.

Krämer: In this case, 40 superwealthy people want to decide what their money will be used for. That runs counter to the democratically legitimate state. In the end the billionaires are indulging in hobbies that might be in the common good, but are very personal.

I recoil at the statism in Peter Krämer’s views. The state has no monopoly on wisdom, and it seems unwise to give it a monopoly in providing public goods. It is also a danger to freedom in other matters to give the state a monopoly in providing public goods, as John Stuart Mill cogently explains in paragraph 21 of On Liberty “Chapter V: Applications”:

A very different spectacle is exhibited among a people accustomed to transact their own business. In France, a large part of the people having been engaged in military service, many of whom have held at least the rank of non-commissioned officers, there are in every popular insurrection several persons competent to take the lead, and improvise some tolerable plan of action. What the French are in military affairs, the Americans are in every kind of civil business; let them be left without a government, every body of Americans is able to improvise one, and to carry on that or any other public business with a sufficient amount of intelligence, order, and decision. This is what every free people ought to be: and a people capable of this is certain to be free; it will never let itself be enslaved by any man or body of men because these are able to seize and pull the reins of the central administration. No bureaucracy can hope to make such a people as this do or undergo anything that they do not like. But where everything is done through the bureaucracy, nothing to which the bureaucracy is really adverse can be done at all. The constitution of such countries is an organization of the experience and practical ability of the nation, into a disciplined body for the purpose of governing the rest; and the more perfect that organization is in itself, the more successful in drawing to itself and educating for itself the persons of greatest capacity from all ranks of the community, the more complete is the bondage of all, the members of the bureaucracy included. For the governors are as much the slaves of their organization and discipline, as the governed are of the governors. A Chinese mandarin is as much the tool and creature of a despotism as the humblest cultivator. An individual Jesuit is to the utmost degree of abasement the slave of his order, though the order itself exists for the collective power and importance of its members.

As you can see in my post four weeks ago, “How and Why to Expand the Nonprofit Sector as a Partial Alternative to Government: A Reader’s Guide,” I advocate going in exactly the opposite direction that Peter Krämer recommends. (And see this reply to the kinds of objections to philanthropy that Peter Krämer makes: William MacAskill: 5 Criticisms of Billionaire Mega-Philanthropy, Debunked.) It is good to have the government fill in the gaps among important things that–for one reason or another–are not popular objects of charity. But many important things can be done not only well, but better by nonprofits than by the government–and would be popular objects of donation for people required by the government to give to some worthy cause.