Jeff Bezos, cancel culture and charitable giving in America

The Amazon CEO has been criticized in the past for not giving enough to charitable causes

Amazon’s Jeff Bezos has been criticized in the past for not giving enough to charitable causes, despite being one of the world’s richest persons.

Continue Reading Below

His recent $10 billion gift to establish a fund to combat climate change was the largest charitable contribution made in 2020, and it may or may not start to defuse such complaints. But one thing it will almost certainly not do: attract criticism for its goal.

Climate change, like social justice or reducing income inequality, is not a lightning rod for liberal critics.

It may well be that Bezos cares deeply about climate trends—but it’s worth noting that this is not the only major recent philanthropic gift that aligns with progressive thought. Bezos and others have the right to support whatever charitable cause they wish to invest in. But let’s hope that they are not feeling pressure to back ideas that will help them avoid controversy—this would be philanthropy’s equivalent of cancel culture.

AMAZON'S JEFF BEZOS DONATED RICHEST GIFT OF 2020 

The risk is a serious one: philanthropy has historically supported unpopular or unknown ideas that turn out to be important. If the new generation of American philanthropists is constrained by fear, we may never know what we’re missing out on.

The idea that the freedoms of philanthropists might be reined in by interest groups is far from hypothetical. In 2016, The Wall Street Journal reported that the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) threatened to withdraw its pension funds from hedge-fund managers who supported charter schools.

AFT union president Randi Weingarten went so far as to pressure investors and others to exit the boards of organizations supporting charters and efforts to reform public-teacher pension plans.

If the Bezos and Zuckerberg major gifts in 2020 are any guide, we may be seeing an ongoing chilling effect on the freedom of philanthropists to follow their own muse.

The managers balked arguing that personal beliefs “shouldn’t be a factor” and Weingarten was “doing a disservice to the teachers she represents because funds should aim solely to earn the highest possible return on their assets.”

ELON MUSK BECOMES RICHEST PERSON IN THE WORLD, SURPASSING JEFF BEZOS

But the problem was as clear then as it is now: charitable giving can lead to having not only one’s views “canceled” but one’s business as well.

Today, one can only imagine what the teachers unions think of Peter Thiel, the PayPal founder and Silicon Valley libertarian, who supported Trump in 2016.

Thiel’s own charitable giving has promoted the idea that entrepreneurs might be better off avoiding higher education altogether. He’s also backed research on how best to ensure an asteroid collision won’t destroy all life on Earth! Eccentric perhaps—but who really knows? That’s the beauty of unconstrained philanthropy.

ARE WE LOOKING AT A DEATH TAX ON CHARITABLE GIVING? HERE'S HOPING CONGRESS STEERS CLEAR

But the specter of constraint, and its negative consequences, are quite real. There is mounting pressure to rein in philanthropy in general and calls for Congress to use policy tools to force donors to only support a limited range of causes, as well as pressure to deny donors their right to anonymity—at the risk of exposing themselves to blowback for supporting controversial causes.

In his book, “The Givers: Wealth, Power, and Philanthropy in a New Gilded Age,” David Callahan, characterizes the philanthropic work of Bill Gates, Eli Broad, Jeff Bezos, and so many others as fundamentally undemocratic—despite its legal protection as First Amendment free speech.

Similarly, Stanford University’s Rob Reich sees philanthropy as a driver and reflection of income inequality. For him, philanthropy’s purpose—indeed, its sole purpose—should be to directly combat inequality.

GET FOX BUSINESS ON THE GO BY CLICKING HERE

It’s a short step from that to the view that only certain charitable giving is truly defensible. Reich himself is skeptical about tax-deductible support for churches, despite the fact that donations to religious institutions are Americans’ most common form of charitable giving. Reich has little tolerance, as well, for cultural institutions—museums or orchestras—falsely assuming that only the rich are moved by the treasures of the past.

In such a hostile political climate, it, unfortunately, makes sense for philanthropists to dodge controversy in their choice of causes to support or so it would seem.

Like the Bezos’ gift supporting climate change research, Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan recently announced a $350 million gift to the Center for Tech and Civic Life to focus on voting security.

CLICK HERE TO READ MORE ON FOX BUSINESS

Charles Schwab directed $65 million to deal with Bay Area homelessness. The leading donations for 2020 also included gifts to higher education and medical research—but all support causes that seem either unopposable or in line with left-leaning goals.

If the Bezos and Zuckerberg major gifts in 2020 are any guide, we may be seeing an ongoing chilling effect on the freedom of philanthropists to follow their own muse.

If so, American society would be worse off—in ways we simply can’t predict—and many nonprofits and charitable causes stand to lose much-needed support if we ignore this trend.

Howard Husock is the executive senior fellow at The Philanthropy Roundtable and the author of “Who Killed Civil Society?