Letter to the Editor: The Uncomfortable Reality of Social Ills

To the Editor:

On any given day in Harvard Square, a pedestrian will pass about a dozen poor and hungry homeless people. Knowing that you cannot lift them out of poverty with a few bucks, or satiate their hunger with one bagel you snagged from the dining hall, you might ignore the homeless altogether. But I write to implore my fellow Harvard students—especially those considering entering finance and consulting—to embrace the discomfort they feel in these situations. That uncomfortable feeling is called injustice.

According to the author of a recent Crimson column, you can solve such social injustices by entering finance, contrary to popular opinion. The author claims the “trajectory of social progress” is hurtling toward private sector philanthropy, or “philanthrocapitalism.” Although he implores readers “not to sell out, but to buy in” to his vision of private-public partnerships, I would implore him to consider that many social problems demand political solutions—solutions only the public sector can realize.

The editorial’s dismissive tone derives from its condemnation of supposedly preachy social justice advocates who have attached a stigma to the preferred career path of many Harvard students. Those who pursue “noble” careers patronize those who would seek careers in finance or consulting. It might be true that, if you want to make a lot of money by entering finance, anyone who vilifies your career choice appears to be a “pedantic social worker who is basically a missionary in his ideological rigidity,” instead of a person with genuine convictions who is trying to effect social progress. This misrepresentation is a knee-jerk reaction that dismisses the importance of non-profit and public sector work, and it justifies pursuing lucrative careers based on coldly calculated measures of their potential social impact.

Unfortunately, the grim reality of society’s woes does not welcome such a neat and tidy solution. So-called philanthrocapitalism will not solve global poverty and hunger, increasing economic inequality, or systemic racism. Some private sector enterprises could certainly make progress in solving some problems. But to fairly redistribute wealth and cement minority rights, we must either act through established political institutions or seek to replace them. Big business has attempted to thwart efforts to advance civil rights throughout American history. They have lobbied against minimum wage increases, fought to dismantle unions, and discriminated against some customers on the basis of race, ethnicity, and/or sexual orientation. We cannot secure political solutions through the private sector.


By overvaluing efficiency, the author detaches himself from the uncomfortable reality of social ills—a reality that should provoke deep discomfort. If future financiers and consultants genuinely want to solve social problems, they do not need to join the Peace Corps, nor do they need to run and hide behind their self-congratulatory justifications of corporate careers. But they cannot dismiss the legitimate criticisms that social justice advocates levy against the outsized influence of largely unregulated investment banks. Through dubious tactics these banks have gambled away people’s homes and destroyed lives, and only government-imposed regulations can prevent that from happening again.

No amount of money Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, and Warren Buffet throw at private sector charities can resolve injustices that demand urgent political solutions. We must not allow private sector charity to drill the final nails into the welfare state’s coffin; we must not sacrifice civil rights and political solutions to global social ills on the altar of so-called philanthrocapitalism.

Daniel J. Kenny ’18

Daniel J. Kenny ’18 lives in Winthrop House.


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