Philanthropic Exchange in Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man

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Date: Winter 2021
From: Independent Review(Vol. 25, Issue 3)
Publisher: Independent Institute
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 6,688 words
Lexile Measure: 1150L

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In his presidential address to the Southern Economics Association in 1963, the future Nobel laureate James Buchanan suggested the economics profession ought to turn its attention away from technical conditions of optimization and toward institutions of voluntary exchange, "which involves the co-operative association of individuals, one with another, even when individual interests are different" (Buchanan 1964, 217).

Of course, Buchanan was establishing an intellectual beachhead for his and Gordon Tullock's book The Calculus of Consent (Buchanan and Tullock 1962), where they use economic tools of reasoning to examine the operation of democratic government. As several scholars have pointed out, Buchanan always conceived of politics as a form of exchange (Brennan 2012; Gwartney and Holcombe 2014). However, Buchanan's suggestion does not end at democratic politics. In his words, "I am simply proposing, in various ways, that economists concentrate attention on the institutions, the relationships, among individuals as they participate in voluntarily organized activity, in trade or exchange, broadly considered" (Buchanan 1964, 221).

One form of voluntary organized activity is philanthropic contribution. Gifts are a form of exchange. A philanthropic gift has no buyer or seller, but rather a donor and a recipient and quite often intermediaries between the two. The donor voluntarily gives a benefit directly or indirectly to a recipient, who voluntarily accepts the gift. The donor does not receive any goods in return. Nevertheless, few doubt that donors receive some sort of psychological benefit from making donations. This is evidenced by the fact that donors often specify conditions for granting the gift and articulate their expectations regarding outcomes from the gift. This specification is quasi-transactional in nature because future gifts are typically contingent on the recipient fulfilling those donor conditions, conditions that the recipient presumably accepted. There is an enormous literature on philanthropy in economics, other social sciences, and the humanities. (1) The approach offered here most closely resembles that offered by Peter Boettke and Christopher Coyne (2008), who note that there is little in philanthropic exchange that generates the price-and-profit signals that ameliorate the principal-agent problem in for-profit enterprises. Donors instead rely on hands-on monitoring and organizational reputation to ensure that their agents are fulfilling their wishes. The agents, of course, have a strong incentive to maintain their reputational capital by presenting evidence of their faithful execution of the donors' intent.

The young, black, intelligent, and unnamed narrator in Ralph Ellison's celebrated novel Invisible Man (1952) spends most of the novel being supported, either directly or indirectly, through philanthropic exchanges. His college experience is supported by the explicitly paternalistic philanthropy of the local white elite in his hometown. At the southern all-black college he attends, he learns at great personal costs the actual workings of the philanthropic exchange between wealthy, white, nonsouthern donors and the black college president who shepherds their gifts. In his time in New York, the narrator is employed as a speaker and activist with a revolutionary political organization called the Brotherhood. Although the terms of his employment can be viewed as a simple labor...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A652364017