Why That Huge Zuckerberg/Chan Pledge Is Scary As Hell

What’s not to like, right?

One of the top tech tycoons of our time, along with his pediatrician wife, have just pledged 99 percent of their fortune to, well, help the 99 percent.

In an age of vast and vexing inequality, here we have one kind of solution: The richest of the rich giving all the money back.   

What’s more, Zuckerberg and Chan have explicitly said that tackling inequality is among their two top goals as philanthropists. Which is not something we hear everyday from mega donors, many of whom ignore the elephant in the mansion while talking up opportunity—a concept that doesn’t actually mean much when structural inequities sharply limit what opportunities actually exist. To give just one example: Nearly half of the jobs created every month in the U.S. are crappy, dead-end positions in low-wage industries like retail.  

Will Mark Zuckerberg, a top winner in an age of extreme capitalism, really try to humanize this system to foster more real equality? That remains to be seen, and there’s been a healthy debate lately about whether philanthropy can even play this role—given where the money comes from. But just as it was great to hear the Ford Foundation explicitly target inequality, it’s great to hear Zuckerberg and Chan embrace the promotion of equality as a primary goal—not least because the couple’s pledge is four times larger than Ford’s endowment.

The other hopeful thing about Zuckerberg and Chan as philanthropists is their commitment to learning and changing. In announcing their philanthropic pledge, which came in the form of a letter to their newly born daughter, Max, the couple said this in describing their approach: “We must engage directly with the people we serve. We can't empower people if we don't understand the needs and desires of their communities.”

We all know what that refers to—namely the botched, top-down education reform push in Newark that characterized Mark Zuckerberg’s debut as a major league philanthropist. By all accounts, Zuckerberg learned hard lessons from that experience, and his second giant ed initiative—$120 million to improve Bay Area schools—has been structured very differently, emphasizing collaboration with community partners. Further evidence of Zuck’s learning curve came yesterday, when it was announced that the final installment of his Newark gift, $12.5 million, would be used to launch a community schools initiative and youth network in the city. According to press reports, these efforts “will include bringing community groups and institutions together to help students both in the classroom and in after-school programs.”

There are also other encouraging elements of the Zuckerberg and Chan vision—perhaps, most of all, their soaring optimism about the potential for humanity to make huge strides in the lifetime of their daughter. This couple is still young, remember—he’s 31, she’s 30—and so they should be ridiculously idealistic. Well, they are. And they also have nearly $50 billion—a fortune, by the way, that could grow much larger in the decades ahead if the value of Facebook's shares keep climbing. It's quite possible that Mark Zuckerberg will be the richest person in the world.

Which brings me to why this pledge is, in the end, darn scary. Whatever the high-minded ideals of Zuckerberg and Chan, we’re still talking about a huge amount of power in the hands of two private individuals, and at a time when wealthy elites already have enormous power. In our second Gilded Age, the rich gained huge influence over our electoral system, hired armies of lobbyists to swarm our public officials, and now rule a corporate world that has become so consolidated that it reminds many of the great trusts of the last Gilded Age. Meanwhile, poll after poll shows that ordinary citizens feel increasingly alienated from civic life and distrustful of all institutions.

Now, with the rise of Big Philanthropy, we’re seeing the logical next act in this age of inequality—the conversion of all those big piles of money into influence that extends into every last corner of U.S. society, not to mention into remote villages in Africa and Asia. Today’s economic inequality may be nothing compared to tomorrow’s civic inequality as more activist mega-donors emerge with big money and big ambitions—at a time, I should add, when government will be spiralling down into fiscal paralysis due to soaring entitlement costs as the boomers retire. If the 20th century was the era of Big Government, the 21st Century is shaping up as the age of Big Philanthropy. This power shift is one of the most important stories of our time.

Sure, funders can offset their own outsized influence by pouring money into advocacy efforts that speak for different groups of citizens and points of view. We’ve seen that again and again through history, and I get the argument that private money can serve to amplify a range of voices and thus boost our pluralist democracy. I also get that elites have often played a critical role in solving problems, working outside channels that have been blocked by special interests or are encrusted with old ideas. I have no doubt that philanthropy will orchestrate some spectacular breakthroughs in coming decades.  

At the end of the day, though, we’re still facing a future in which rich people increasingly decide which voices get elevated and which problems get solved. And even if there is a wide diversity of wealthy donors making these choices, as is increasingly the case, research tells us that the upper class, overall, has different views and priorities than ordinary Americans on many issues, particularly when it comes to economics, fiscal policy, trade, and America’s role in the world.

Also, keep in mind: While there are plenty of good people emerging at the highest levels of philanthropy like Zuckerberg and Chan, there are also less appealing actors. Close your eyes for a moment and imagine that yesterday it was the Koch brothers who had pledged to use their entire fortune (of $85 billion) to shape the direction of U.S. society. The picture would look a bit different, right?

Philanthropy is not a meritocracy, nor is there a moral litmus test for entering. Anyone with enough money can play. And as more billionaires enter this game—whether we cheer them or fear them—it’s getting harder for the rest of us to be heard in the public square.