Acton Institute Powerblog

Facebook and the Institutional Forms of Social Good

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CZI LetterOver at Think Christian, I take a look at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and derive a lesson from Jesus’ interaction with the rich young man in Mark 10.

A basic lesson we can take from the decision to organize the initiative as an LLC rather than a traditional non-profit corporation is that pursuing social good is possible in a wide variety of institutional forms. A for-profit incorporation doesn’t preclude a main, or even primary, purpose aimed at social good. Just as non-profit status doesn’t by itself guarantee charitable effectiveness, for-profit incorporation doesn’t by itself indicate egoistic or self-centered goals.

Benedict XVI, in his encyclical letter Caritas in veritate, discussed a hope for “hybrid forms of commercial behaviour to emerge, and hence an attentiveness to ways of civilizing the economy. Charity in truth, in this case, requires that shape and structure be given to those types of economic initiative which, without rejecting profit, aim at a higher goal than the mere logic of the exchange of equivalents, of profit as an end in itself.”

There are, in fact, a wide variety of incorporation options available, including the relatively new L3C, a low-profit form of the LLC. As Zuckerberg puts it, the reason to go with an LLC was that it in their judgment it allows the initiative to “pursue our mission by funding non-profit organizations, making private investments and participating in policy debates — in each case with the goal of generating a positive impact in areas of great need. Any net profits from investments will also be used to advance this mission.”

Some have intimated that Chan and Zuckerberg are being hypocritical and self-serving, and that all this is about ultimately making Facebook more powerful. But if you read the original letter, you can see quite clearly what their intent is. Forms of the word “investment” occur 7 times in the letter. Words like “give,” “charity,” and “philanthropy” are either absent or understated. It was the reportage surrounding the announcement that interpreted the initiative primarily as traditional charity, philanthropy, or altruism.

The point here is that true service of others doesn’t need to be entirely disinterested, as if investing or even giving requires simple abdication of responsibility. In fact, the traditional understanding of self-interest as selfish interest in the self is flawed. Self-interest is better understood as comprising the interests of the self, which can be quite narrow or quite broad.

All this is not to say that the substance of the initiative itself is praiseworthy or condemnable. We’ll need to see a lot more than the rough sketches and outlines that are apparent thus far to make anything more than provisional judgments about the prudence of various projects. But looking at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative from the perspective of the formal decision to incorporate as an LLC, I think we can find a lesson about creative ways of approaching our attempts to civilize the economy.

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.

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