Giving Back To Society (2005 Jul)

by Barry A. Liebling

I am often impressed when I see successful people being generous with their wealth. We frequently hear stories of someone working very hard at his or her profession, becoming affluent, and giving large amounts of money to philanthropic causes such as funding schools and libraries, establishing academic scholarships, and supporting medical research.

As warm as I might feel toward the actions of some philanthropists, I am chilled by a common rationale for their actions. In explaining why they give so lavishly, many benefactors proclaim they are merely “giving back” to society, or the country, or their neighborhood. The term “giving back” applied to philanthropy has become a platitude that is uttered without critical evaluation. For some, “giving back to society” is almost a synonym for being generous with your resources. But if you analyze the meaning of the term, you will see that it cannot be a correct rationale for gift giving.

“Giving back” is the perfect phrase for someone who opposes the concept of private property and longs to see all wealth “owned collectively” by society. It implies that what you are giving is not really yours but is rightfully the property of other people. When you fall into the trap of labeling your gifts as “giving back,” you unwittingly engage in a self-insult that is antithetical to the proper spirit of individualism, rationality, and capitalism.

Consider what “giving back” signifies. Someone is returning wealth that was taken or borrowed. If you give something back to someone, you are delivering something that does not belong to you. A philanthropist who says he is “giving back” is proclaiming that he is not the legitimate owner of the wealth. Instead, the wealth really belongs to someone else, or to society, or to the community. If you do not own something you are in no position to bestow it as a gift.

“Giving back” implies that the philanthropist deserves no gratitude. You do feel indebted to someone who returns something that already belongs to you. Gratitude is reserved for those who give you things they are not obligated to give you.

The “giving back” notion is contradictory to the concept of philanthropy. Philanthropy refers to actions inspired by “love for humankind.” But returning something that legitimately belongs to someone else is neither a gift nor an affectionate gesture.

When you follow this line of reasoning the consequences for the donor become even worse. If your philanthropic action is “giving back,” how much are you withholding that you have not yet given back? When should we expect to see you give back the rest of the loot you illegitimately hold? Is it acceptable to harass those who are not “giving back enough”and pressure them to surrender their assets? Can a thief excuse his actions on the grounds that his victims should be “giving back to society” and do not deserve to keep their wealth?

“Giving back” as a philanthropic term implicitly assumes that acquiring wealth consists of expropriating it from others rather than creating it. Furthermore, the term suggests that financially successful people have a moral debt to return the wealth they accumulate to the “real owners”and have no right to keep it for their own use. The implication is that successful people ought to feel guilty about having wealth and that less affluent people are justified for feeling disdain for anyone who has more than they do.

Of course, in the real world successful people are frequently benevolent and generous. The most common scenario is that their achievements result in the creation of wealth that did not exist previously. Productive people may decide to bestow a gift of some of their wealth to causes they find interesting and worthy. But none of this has anything to do with “giving back.”

Most of the time philanthropists do not really mean to say they are contributing resources that do not rightfully belong to them. A common reason for using the phrase “giving back” is the desire to appear modest and unpretentious. Undoubtedly, many wealthy donors are advised that “giving back” is a polite way to avoid looking arrogant or imperious. However, it is important to reflect on the consequences of perpetuating this inappropriate nomenclature.

While it is gracious to be polite, it is tragic to get trapped in an untenable position. I would like to see generous people explain their philanthropy in honest, forthright terms. Refrain from using “giving back” to describe philanthropy and replace it with something like, “I am glad that I am able to contribute to this important cause.”

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