Uncategorized · April 17, 2023 0

We Can’t Build Our Nation If We Only Want to be Individuals

Marty Levine

April 18, 2023

Can we really solve our problems by going it alone? That’s the question I found myself thinking about as I scanned my email feed last week.

Here’s a list I compiled from a recent “Philanthropy Today” (Chronicle of Philanthropy) of large charitable gifts:

  • “ Leonard and Ronald Lauder, and their children … pledged to give…$200 millionover the next decade to speed up the research and development of drugs aimed at preventing and treating Alzheimer’s disease…”
  • “Steven Wymer gave $25 millionto support the construction of Gies College of Business’s new building…” on the University of Illinois campus,…“
  • Jacklyn and Miguel Bezos gave $21 million…to establish the Center for the Transition to Parenthood…”
  • “Byron and Tina Trott gave $20 million…to launch a…consortium of 16 colleges and universities that will create programs aimed at assisting students from small-town and rural America enroll in, succeed at, and graduate from the undergraduate program of their choice….”
  • Jim Berchtold pledged $18 millionto the University of Portland “stipulated that $12 million of it go toward scholarships and other tuition assistance… $6 million to support the university’s athletics programs, the Dundon-Berchtold Institute, and graduate programs in the Pamplin School of Business.”
  • Jon and Kim Shirley pledged $10 millionto the Seattle Art Museum to”endow their valuable collection of artwork by the prominent 20th-century artist Alexander Calder, which they have pledged to give to the museum upon Jon Shirley’s death….”

Here’s another list I’ve compiled of how governments are trying to solve societal problems:

Both lists are symptoms of our nation’s desire to protect individuality and personal status at the expense of our welfare as a nation.

Rather than being able to form national strategies that call for shared commitment and sacrifice by some about issues, we choose to respond to these problems in a fragmented way. Rather than have national strategies, we are allowing problem-solving to be delegated to states, smaller units of government, and individuals.  Even when there is a supposed national agreement on what our policy should be it is often polluted by this desire to allow each state to make its own path.  These gifts represent more the personal interest of the donor than they do any sense of societal need or plan. While they earn the donor the benefit of paying less tax, which is less of a contribution to the cost of government and its programs, they require no commitment to the priorities we have collectively established. And if they do, we require no commitment to a particular theory of change or strategy for improvement.

Who can vote? Each state decides and they decide differently.  The basic building block of our Democracy, the right to vote is so different depending on where you happen to reside.

Who is in economic distress and what if any services and supports can they rely on? We allow each state to decide and make their own rules.

We even debate about whether we should make successful and popular national programs like Social Security less universal.

The concept of “states’ rights” seems to have arisen from the ashes of the civil war to now be almost transcendent.  The Supreme Court’s language in the infamous Dobbs decision that  threw away a women’s right to control her own body and make her own choices about the health care she desires makes this very clear: “it is time to heed the Constitution and return the issue of abortion to the people’s elected representatives.” Empowered by this thought, we now have 50 different definitions of what is legal and what is not, and of what level of health care is available.

By design, we have allowed government at all levels to become less effective and insufficiently funded and pushed support from the public to the private by relying on charity to fill in the gaps. By design, we have allowed the weaknesses of government action to become the reason for further limiting government action. 

And for some, all governments are suspect. These voices demand that all decisions be returned to the individual. We saw this among the anti-vaxers who challenged the government’s right to respond to a public health emergency. We are seeing it today in the voices demanding that parental authority trumps all. The Parental Rights Foundation made that position very clear: or

Going even further, we are seeing a growing effort to heighten the ability of each person to make their own public policy. An example is homeschooling and universal school vouchers which turn public education into a marketplace where parents can consume the type, content, and amount of education they wish their children to receive.

In the absence of firm government policies and actions the most vulnerable, the marginalized among us are left unsupported; and problems like climate change that will affect us all become harder, if not impossible, to respond to.

In the absence of government policies, we advise people to work harder and smarter even when the system is stacked against them.

And we substitute a patchwork of philanthropic investments, all supported by generous tax credits, to replace collective action.  Day after day we can read about the beneficence of billionaires and multi-millionaires. Each of their gifts reflects the individual wisdom ( or ignorance) and preferences of the donors; where they put their money is their personal decision about what is important and what deserves more funding. Whether it truly is most important for our nation never has to enter the equation.

Take for example a $300 million commitment to Harvard University by Financier Ken Griffin. It will support a graduate school at Harvard, a school whose endowment already exceeds $50 billion! In making this gift, Mr. Griffin had only one voice to listen to — his own. He had no responsibility to consider any sense of priority but his own.

As a nation we seem enamored by the power of the individual and unable to create a meaningful national agenda and strategy. There seems to be a national bias toward the “power and wisdom” of the wealthy individual.  

We seem content to allow our governments at all levels to remain deadlocked, underfunded, and ineffective.  

This will continue as long as we, as a nation, tolerate it. Perhaps that’s the way most of us want our nation to face its future. I, for one, do not. And I see only bad things emerging if we don’t change course and make the personal sacrifices that collective action requires.