Theodore M. Lechterman

Postdoctoral Researcher in Political Theory

Professional website of Theodore M. Lechterman, postdoctoral researcher in political theory.


Investigating how social and political institutions can be justified and appraised is the main task of a normative political theorist. I take special interest in practices beyond the state that have yet to receive sustained critical attention.

The practice of organized philanthropy, which has occupied much of my work to date, is a case in point. Here philanthropy refers to the practice of voluntarily committing private property to public purposes. Organized philanthropy is philanthropy in its modern form, facilitated by law and public policy. Despite the benevolent intentions and great achievements of many donors, philanthropy is also an exercise of power. Using private property to promote public purposes allows wealth to define the contours and content of civil society. And allowing wealth to control social outcomes appears to collide with core commitments of a democratic society, a society in which persons are supposed to be equally entitled to control their common affairs. What place can philanthropy have in a society committed to legitimizing power democratically?

Recent normative discussions of philanthropy have tended to treat it as a realm separate from politics, and to focus inquiry on what it means for individual donors to give well. Those who do recognize philanthropy as a political problem have explored some specific facets, such as the threat of paternalism, and how philanthropy can support liberal ideals. But they have not addressed the conflict between philanthropy and democracy in a systematic way.

I am currently developing a book manuscript that deepens and broadens the account set out in my doctoral dissertation, “Donors’ Democracy: Private Philanthropy and Political Morality.” The book builds upon recent attempts in democratic theory to articulate precisely what makes democracy valuable and to separate questions of legitimacy from questions of justice. It explores these larger questions through specific puzzles in the practice of philanthropy. The exploration yields conclusions about the regulative ideals that apply to this practice, conclusions that reinforce certain elements of existing policies and imply radical reform for others. In the process, the book also shows how exploring the topic of philanthropy tests and refines existing views about democracy’s value.

Consider, for instance, the common policy of subsidizing philanthropic donations, today a fixture of the public finance regimes of most democratic societies. Most instantiations of this policy make subsidies available on a neutral basis, with no special priority accorded to specific categories of nonprofit activity. Numerous critics have found this policy wanting, contending that public support for philanthropy can only be justified as a way of responding to poverty. Against this view, I argue that public support for citizens’ varied philanthropic commitments achieves three legitimate public aims: satisfying diverse preferences for public goods, enriching the quality of a society’s cultural language, and securing the organizational foundations of democratic deliberation. In the process, my account also challenges conventional perspectives on the distinction between ideal and non-ideal theory.

But there are alternative ways of providing this public support, and unfortunately, common practice in many Western societies falls short. Charitable tax deductions serve to amplify the voices of the wealthy at the expense of the less advantaged. Under conditions of economic inequality, subsidizing donations on formally equal terms allows wealthier citizens to augment their influence over public affairs, further marginalizing poorer citizens. I argue that this state of affairs is ultimately incompatible with the demands of democratic equality, and I offer some ways of redressing it through policy measures. In the process, I reexamine and rearticulate the nature of political equality and what it demands.

Another problem regarding philanthropic power concerns the way in which charitable gifts exercise control over future generations. Charitable bequests and trusts, which are popular instruments of donation, bind future generations to respect the wills of past donors. I argue that this “dead-hand control” is objectionable because each generation has an interest in sovereignty over its collective affairs. I defend an account of the value of sovereignty and its place in democratic theory. I then show how taking the value of sovereignty seriously tells in favor of restrictions on the duration that donors can expect to have their wills honored.

I presently have working drafts of four substantive chapters, and plans in place for two additional chapters that test the book’s central insights against transnational phenomena. I expect that completing the manuscript and securing a publishing contract will take me through the fall of 2019, with a period of revision to follow.

My work on philanthropy has also spawned free-standing papers in early stages of the publication process. A piece on intergenerational philanthropy is slated for inclusion in a volume on “giving in time,” edited by Benjamin Soskis of the Urban Institute and Ray Madoff of Boston College Law School. An article critiquing “effective altruism” as an ethic of giving is currently under review by the journal Polity. I am drafting a chapter with Rob Reich on the political theory of the nonprofit sector, to be included in the next edition of the Nonprofit Sector Research Handbook, published by Stanford University Press.

Working on philanthropy has impressed upon me that some of the issues that arise in this context reflect wider problems. Indeed, the line between philanthropy and commerce is increasingly blurring in practice, as hybrid forms of social enterprise continue to grow in number and scale. Moreover, certain concerns we may have about private power pertain no less to for-profit enterprise than they do to non-profit activity. I am thus beginning to turn my attention to a second project on the institutional division of political labor. I will present some of these ideas in draft form at a conference later this fall.

The point of departure for this project is the common intuition that certain public functions ought not be outsourced to private volunteers or commercial entrepreneurs. Some functions must be financed collectively by taxation and administered by public officials. Paradigm examples include public education and the penal system. However, those who share this intuition lack a convincing account of what justifies it or how strong it is. Why exactly should we think that certain functions amount to irreducibly collective responsibilities? Existing arguments emphasize instrumental considerations and fail to generate a sufficiently generalizable theory. They leave open the possibility that any agent with decent motives and superior technical know-how could perform critical public functions. Proponents of technocracy may find this a welcome implication.

My hypothesis, however, is that the value of democracy, properly understood, makes citizens sovereign over fundamental questions of justice. That is, democratic legitimacy requires that we directly influence the policies that regulate our basic rights, duties, and opportunities. In turn, democracy enjoins us to reject offers from private parties to secure conditions of justice on our behalf. Democracy’s sovereignty can both explain certain intuitions about outsourcing and justify an attractive account of the institutional division of labor. Such an account would provide a basis for evaluating major institutional design choices as well as the choices faced by private agents in attempting to address social problems.