Misdirected Idealism

The Working Catholic: Misdirected Idealism
Bill Droel

John McKnight directs Asset-Based Community Development Institute at DePaul University. He objects to the standard approach toward a neighborhood by urban planners, government officials, and bank executives, building inspectors, social workers, some police officers and even some teachers. Instead of projecting joy and enthusiasm, they give exclusive attention to a neighborhood’s defects (old buildings, broken curbs, high number of transients, roaming delinquents, dim street lights and more). The well-meaning prophets of doom sometimes propose cosmetic interventions (new basketball hoops and additional street sweeping) to buoy drooping spirits of families.
McKnight, contrary to standard understanding, thinks many seemingly good interventions are in fact disabling help. A forceful ideology, he details, assumes some people are not competent neighbors; they are instead clients with deficient parts. This ideology is apolitical. There is no need to radically address the economic or cultural environment. Service, sincerely delivered, is an unquestioned good. There is no compelling need to explain why our country has terrific medical discoveries and many improved medical instruments and yet poor health. Or why our country has lots of knowledge about food and great interest in culinary arts and yet poor nutrition. Or lots of new classroom technology and yet declining reading scores.

Anand Giridharadas applies this analysis to those who sincerely believe that by doing well they can do good. Idealistic students, enterprising tech engineers and many innovators in finance “declare themselves partisans of change,” he writes in Winners Take All: the Elite Charade of Changing the World (Knopf, 2018). Yet they selectively take on problems with projects they design, jumping over most of the people affected by the problem and quite often blocking government agencies from access to the problem. The goodwill of these educated and highly positioned do-gooders is insufficient, Giridharadas argues. In many cases it is harmful.
The tech entrepreneurs and the enterprising finance wizards, Giridharadas says, believe that “to change the world you must rely on the techniques, resources and personnel of capitalism.” The approach of these economic and cultural leaders is taught to students at big-name colleges. “The private push into world betterment,” he continues, sidelines “the older language of power, justice and rights.” Instead, the elite-style of social change uses phrases like leveraged data, social impact, and incubation of ideas, start-up venture, empowering endeavor, social enterprise club, impact investment and more.
The internet began in the mid-1960s, first among select engineers. It soon grew in scope and now is, of course, nearly universally used constantly by way of many types of devices. A philosophy came along with the hardware and the programs. The big tech players and their fans, says Giridharadas, believe in the leveling ability of technology. Everyone is entitled to access, they say, and extensive use of cyberspace, in and of itself, increases equality. (See for example The World Is Flat by Thomas Friedman, Picador, 2007.)
Perhaps the tech giants are sincere. But their notion of change always includes a payoff for the tech entity and never addresses the basics of our economic system or our dominant culture. Keep in mind: Today’s tech industry is more concentrated than any other sector. A small number of people own the entire infrastructure. Their companies greatly add to wealth inequality.
Is it better then for tech leaders and for young adults who aspire to do good and do well to stifle their philanthropy and cease their forays into social problems? Might they simply put their excess wealth and lingering idealism back into their portfolio?

Catholic social doctrine has pertinent principles. According to subsidiarity, decisions should be made as close as possible to those affected by the decision. Maternalism or paternalism is a step or two removed from the scene. For example, says Catholicism, workers make the decision for or against a union without interference from management, even if management seemingly knows better. According to the principle of participation, a society increases in justice as more families have an increasing stake in the economy and the direction of culture. Catholicism favors private property and never requires exact material equality of income or wealth. It does insist, however, that all families have agency—usually by way of intermediate associations.
Context is a crucial difference between tech/finance philosophy and Catholicism. Individuals login and travel around the tech world as they please. In Catholicism, there is no such thing as a person without an environment; without family, friends, clubs, and more. A large portion of the social environment, Catholicism appreciates, is a gift.

Winners Take All is an important critique; one made by only a small number of other commentators like John McKnight in The Careless Society (Basic Books, 1995) and more recently by Thomas Frank in Listen Liberal (Henry Holt, 2016).

Droel is the author of Public Friendship (National Center for the Laity, PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629; $5)

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