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August 1935

Private Fortunes and the Public Future
by Abraham Flexner

Quite recently a large assembly gathered in the City of New York to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the Montefiore Hospital for Chronic Diseases. This institution was established fifty years ago by a group of devoted and grateful men and women and by them dedicated to the relief of suffering humanity …

This institution is only one of hundreds—hospitals, schools, universities, museums, orchestras, and various associations—which relieve the state of part of its burden, and which, I venture to say, as a general rule carry on more economically and more effectively than similar institutions which are managed by public authorities …

We happen to be living in an era when, in consequence of human gullibility and fallibility, the world has been overtaken by panic and distress such as private initiative alone cannot cope with. To an extent that could previously never have been expected the cities, the states, and the central government have been compelled to undertake to provide relief where voluntary agencies have been unequal to the task. I have no criticism to make on this score. It is a splendid and inspiring thing that at a time of great social crisis the American nation has found itself possessed of a form of government which can relieve the poor, clothe the naked, and provide support for the unemployed; but at this very moment when the government is doing all that it can humanly do in these various directions it behooves us to remember the essence of our tradition of private effort and benefaction …

Civilization and culture … cannot be obtained unless abundance and leisure exist … It is important to this country to emphasize the fact that the rôle of private effort has not been exhausted and that, unless we are to abandon all our traditions in government, in philanthropy, and in education, it cannot be abandoned … I cannot forget the vast debt that we owe … to those thousands and hundreds of thousands who have contributed small means as well as large to building up institutions of learning, museums, and hospitals which represent the high-water mark of our civilization …

It might even be maintained that the level of a given civilization can perhaps be measured by the extent of private initiative, private responsibility, private organization in all the fields open to human culture …

The accumulation of fortunes through foresight, unusual capacity, energy, thrift, and native honorable shrewdness is in itself no crime. On the contrary … fortunes so accumulated may be made the sources from which great philanthropic, cultural, and beneficent enterprises ultimately flow.

Vol. 156, No. 2, pp. 215–224

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