Monday, August 9, 2010

Conservatives Against Philanthropy: Are Bill Gates and Warren Buffett Socialists?

They're wearing red. That can't be a coincidence.
I confess I don't get this reaction to the June story in Fortune about how Bill Gates and Warren Buffett are trying to persuade other billionaires to leave half their estates to charity:

As it turns out, however, the writer, senior editor-at-large Carol Loomis, struck a raw nerve with Fortune readers. Most were outraged – regarding the philanthropy plan as grandstanding that would do nothing to create jobs or to address horrific problems, including runaway government spending, the spiraling deficit, and the near-comatose state of the economy. As Fortune notes in its July 26 issue, “When Carol Loomis reported on Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates’ plan to pledge half of their wealth away, the comments – nearly 500 of them – came in fast and, literally, furious.”

According to Fortune’s own tally, the comments ran 2-to-1 against Buffett and Gates. The included 36 percent of who readers described the philanthropy plan as “a publicity stunt/dangerous/the work of socialists” and another 26 percent who said the money that Buffett, Gates, and the other billiionaires were proposing to spend on charity should be spent in other ways – to pay off the U.S. debt, to help individuals, or reinvested in the creation of new businesses and job opportunities.

Any number of readers wrote in to urge Buffett and Gates to remember that they were supposed to be capitalists. As one put it, “For all their vast wealth, these people don’t have a clue about how economies flourish and fail. Don’t GIVE your money away. That’s called putting it in a bottomless pit. INVEST IT. Create some badly needed jobs by creating something called BUSINESSES with that capital.”

This is why I'm confused: Conservatives have typically sought to defuse allegations that they're heartless moneygrubbers by saying that they're not against helping poor or needy people, exactly -- they just think it's the job of communities and churches and private charity, not the state. But if they're now so critical of private individuals actually giving their money to charity, what's left?

Is the Ayn Randization of the business community becoming complete? Is the only virtue to build yourself and your profit? Is altruism morally suspect in this universe?

A conservative friend suggests that some of the response is less "anti-charity" than a reaction against the kinds of charity Gates and Buffett are supporting. (Buffet has, quietly, used his philathropical reach to try to expand access to abortion.) And their efforts do seem aimed at more than feeding the hungry and healing the sick -- they want to use their billions to transform societies. From the Fortune article, a description of a dinner where several billionaires told their stories of philathropy:

The charitable causes discussed in those stories covered the spectrum: education, again and again; culture; hospitals and health; the environment; public policy; the poor generally. Bill Gates, who found the whole event "amazing," regarded the range of causes as admirable: "The diversity of American giving," he says, "is part of its beauty."

But it's not as though Gates or Buffett have the power to compel other rich people to give to charity -- much less determine which philanthropies those rich people choose to fund. So statism -- usually the bugaboo of capitalist-conservatives -- seems to be absent from the equation. How the effort equates to "socialism," I'm at a loss to understand.

As it happens, today's New York Times has a front-page story about India -- that economic up-and-comer whose growth sometimes seems to come at the expense of America's -- and the debate there over whether the poor have a right to eat. Even with the availability of more good-paying jobs than ever before, there are still many, many Indians in poverty: 421 million. Which happens to be more people than exist in the United States, rich or poor.

The point here is not to disparage capitalism. It may have some warts, but it has also created more wealth -- and lifted more people out of poverty -- than any other force in history. So Gates and Buffett's critics are right to an extent: Start some businesses and put some people to work! You know what? That can easily be done with the billions of dollars each man will still have, even after their sizable philanthropic donations. It's not an either-or question.

The critics seem more than a little  foolish when they suggest that two self-made billionaires don't understand economics. They're also guilty of narrow thinking. As India shows -- and American history demonstrates -- there are places the market cannot reach and people the market cannot help, even in the most vibrant of economies. (There are places it probably shouldn't reach, but that's another discussion.) Conservatives usually seem to know this, which is why they've advocated private charity as a solution to such ills. To see them now sneer at altruism is weird and a little unsettling.


Anonymous said...

Joel, This is a wonderful reflection. Da

namefromthepast said...

Agreed Joel.

It's their money-get it in cash and burn it if they wanted.

Conservative minded and lib minded people alike seem to think they know best how to spend other's money.

Monkey RobbL said...

The message behind the message: NEVER READ THE COMMENTS.

[tongue partly in cheek]