Giving in America


Assistance for the poor, scientific research, arts and culture—many wonder how we can be sure markets, absent government compulsion, would provide these critical social goods. Behind a glass case at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., sits the answer: a long tradition of private individuals sharing what they have.

The small permanent exhibit, titled "Giving in America," showcases a few odd objects that make its point, including a rubber pail representing the "ice bucket challenge," a 2014 viral campaign that raised $115 million for a cure to Lou Gehrig's disease. Also displayed are pledge letters from billionaires who have accepted an invitation from Warren Buffett and Bill Gates to turn over at least half their wealth to philanthropy.

Among the historical antecedents for this generosity are the abolitionist Paul Cuffee, credited on a placard with opening the first integrated school in the early 1800s, and James Smithson, without whose bequest the world's largest museum complex—and the site of this history lesson—would not exist.