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  • Philanthropy's Role in Liberal Democracy
  • Bruce R. Sievers

Here is a contemporary social paradox: Modern liberal democracy rests upon a platform of a pluralistic civil society. Philanthropy, by providing vital resources, is an essential feature of that civil society. Yet philanthropy also plays an ambiguous role in democracy. Therefore philanthropy potentially both supports and detracts from democracy. This essay explores the nature of this paradox and its implications for the practice of contemporary philanthropy.

Definitional Issues

Neither "civil society" nor "democracy" has a single, universally accepted meaning in the contemporary world. In differing historical and philosophical contexts, civil society has been used to describe a broad spectrum of social phenomena—the realm of social activity separate from the family, state, and economy; a private sphere of action defended against the state; the collectivity of nonprofit and nongovernmental organizations; the arena in which social movements take place; and a society governed by norms of civility, among others. [End Page 380]

Conservatives tend to emphasize the private character of these definitions, viewing civil society as a private domain often standing in opposition to the state. Liberals tend to emphasize civil society as the realm of social movements that can animate the state in the direction of progressive social change. For the purposes of this essay the definition of civil society, borrowed from that proposed by Helmut Anheier, embraces both of these senses while avoiding a specific ideological stance: "Civil society is the arena outside family, government, and market where people voluntarily associate to advance common interests based on civility."1 I have discussed elsewhere an expanded version of this definition that comprises seven constitutive elements: private associations, philanthropy, the rule of law, a system of free expression, and norms of the common good, individual rights, and tolerance.2

The concept of democracy has likewise been subject to widely diverse interpretations through more than two millennia of political and philosophical disputation. The original Greek sense of "rule by the people" has remained the core of its definition, but other, often oppositional, meanings have been proposed over time, including majoritarian, constitutionalist, representative, pluralist, populist, socialist, and republican senses, depending on the era and political context in which it has been invoked. Here democracy is defined in the modern sense of "liberal democracy," incorporating fundamental notions of majority rule, political equality, pluralism, and protection of individual rights.3

Civil Society and Democracy: A Complementary Relationship

The most widely accepted contemporary account of civil society's relationship to the democratic state views civil society and democracy as complementary. Civil society forms the realm of private, voluntary action, while the state articulates and imposes common ends as public mandates: According to Post and Rosenblum, "Civil society is the realm of social life which, when viewed from the perspective of government, is characterized by plural and particularist identities. Government, by contrast, is an inclusive sphere, which, when viewed from the perspective of civil society, is characterized by overarching public norms made and enforced by official institutions. Civil society is a zone of freedom for individuals to associate with others and for groups to shape their norms, articulate their purposes, and determine for themselves the internal structure of group authority and identity. Government is a domain of common purpose and identity."4 [End Page 381]

In civil society citizens form opinions about public matters, combine for collective purposes (both narrowly and broadly conceived), and develop the civil capacities to participate in the democratic state. In this account, civil society both articulates the diversity of individual interests and develops consensus for pursuit of collective goods by the democratic state. The state implements majority views and takes mandatory action to achieve public ends.

This account reflects the dual character of the development of civil society in the West. Charles Taylor describes this as two streams of civil society thought: the "Locke-stream" reflecting the defense of the sphere of individual rights against the state and the "Montesquieu-stream" reflecting the supportive relationship of private interests in support of the achievement of collective goods by the state.5 Both streams have been present in the evolution of civil society's relationship to the democratic state since the early modern era. They...