Choking charities: the latest ‘woke’ assault

Now that her divorce is official, MacKenzie Bezos has announced that she will donate at least half her fortune to charity. She had better spend it quickly, though, before progressive activists decide her money is too tainted for upstanding institutions to accept.

A couple of weeks ago, the Metropolitan Museum of Art decided to stop accepting money from members of the Sackler family because of its ties to Purdue Pharma, which is thought to be partially responsible for the opioid crisis. The Met has joined several other museums — the Tate Modern, the American Museum of Natural History, the Guggenheim — in this new policy.

Meanwhile, the Whitney Museum of American Art is under pressure to remove one of its vice chairmen because he is the CEO of the Safariland Group, a company that has sold tear gas to law enforcement, which activists claim has been used against migrants at the border.

Of course, the Koch family has been the subject of such protests for years because, the activists claim, their businesses contribute to greenhouse-gas emissions and global warming.

The Bezos’ fortune doesn’t come from selling drugs or guns, but critics say the Amazon founder should be paying his employees higher salaries and contributing more in taxes to the city of Seattle so it can address its homeless problems. Will that be enough to earn the richest man in the world and his ex-wife the cold shoulder from nonprofit boards?

In The New York Times, Anand Giridharadas, author of “Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World,” applauds the Met and asks: “Should anyone working to help families affected by President Trump’s immigration policies take money from Mark Zuckerberg, whose soft-pedaling of Russian interference in the 2016 election allowed anti-immigrant hate to spread and potentially helped Mr. Trump gain votes?”

Giridharadas answers his own question: “For far too long, generosity has been allowed to serve as a wingman of injustice; giving back disguises merciless taking.” Rob Reich, a professor at Stanford and the author of “Just Giving: Why Philanthropy Is Failing Democracy and How It Can Do Better,” recently tweeted that the Met’s action is part of “an important new trend: nonprofits can be complicit in reputation-laundering of their donors. If the donor made money in a way that was illegal, or imposed harm on other people, philanthropic use of the money does not balance the ledger.”

Making money in a way that “imposed harm on other people” is a subjective and broad category — for example, some might include, say, when competition from Walmart forces a local small business to close or Bain Capital consolidates a company’s operations, resulting in layoffs and dismissals.

Including the Sacklers’ “sins” is certainly a stretch. Their company controls a small portion of the opioid market, and the drugs they have been accused of mis-marketing have also brought relief to millions of people suffering from chronic pain.

Such a mix of benefits and losses often comes with the accumulation of wealth. Many products that have created personal or family fortunes have brought great benefits to society along with some collateral damage.

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The Carnegies, Rockefellers and Fords were denounced in their time as “Robber Barons,” even though their contributions to the steel, oil and automobile industries contributed greatly to American economic progress. Would we be better off today if a century ago charitable institutions rejected their contributions?

Donors don’t donate to charities to cleanse their reputations from decisions made in the process of acquiring wealth. This is a crude fairy tale. In fact, most wealthy donors, like everyone else, give their money away primarily to help others or contribute to some public good.

To accept the critics’ view is to accept the idea that business and wealth are inherently bad and charities exist to balance the moral scales. In fact, our great charitable institutions are creatures of the business system and the wealth it generates and continues to create.

One thing is clear: Leaders of charities should generally reject activists’ calls to ban specific donors on debatably moral grounds, or they’ll soon find themselves banning everyone. That will not only leave them out of a job; it will also leave Americans without financial support for their most cherished institutions.

James Piereson is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. Naomi Schaefer Riley is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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