Bill Gates and Warren Buffett are seen as the high priests of modern corporate philanthropy. They are folks who made (or are making) all their wealth by being successful capitalists. Now they want to give it all away, distributing their wealth to a wide range of causes in a business-like fashion, tracking outcomes, improving lives and inspiring other philanthropists.
But, are they worthy of our adulation?
The scientific & industrial revolutions spawned capitalists like Gates & Buffett who lured billions of gleeful consumers. The runaway consumption economy has made our world more unequal, poor, diseased and less hospitable & peaceful. Both Microsoft and Berkshire Hathaway have significantly contributed to this state of affairs, directly or indirectly.
Microsoft supplies business software to thousands of consumer goods companies, advertising agencies, weapons manufacturers etc., thereby indirectly supporting rampant consumption, arms race etc. Microsoft & Bill Gates have made all their billions by indirectly contributing to most of the ills facing us today. By deploying his wealth to fight the ills he has caused, can Bill Gates absolve himself? If he is really serious about improving our lives and the world, should he not shut down Microsoft, or at least be more discriminative of the customers & prospects he engages with?
Berkshire thrives on consumption, directly and indirectly, through its 100+ businesses. It produces, markets & transports hundreds of consumer and industrial categories of goods. When we celebrate Warren Buffett’s unbeaten track record of 19% compounded return over 52 years, we also need to pause and think how much plundering of natural resources & rampant consumption has contributed to Berkshire’s billions. By giving away all his wealth, can Warren Buffett absolve himself? If he is really serious about improving our lives and the world, should he not shut down those businesses which have made (or still making) our world a less hospitable place?
Corporate philanthropists play on two key arguments. We don’t know of any other system better than capitalism. And modern science, technology & innovations will solve all our problems sooner or later.
Both the arguments are inherently weak. We cannot perpetuate capitalism and its ills just because we don’t know an alternative. Why can’t responsible corporate philanthropists, having made their wealth through capitalism, shut down their businesses partially or completely? Why can’t they spend their money to fight for better regulation, discouraging wasteful consumption etc.? While modern science & technology are indeed solving many problems, isn’t our present system creating more problems than solutions?
As high priests, Gates & Buffett should rethink how they make & spend their billions