The Charity Enigma

I saw a beggar (and his dog) on Sunset Boulevard the other day. They — well, the human — were soliciting cash donations for “food” from pedestrians. A well-meaning but foolish fellow threw a few bucks at the doleful couple, thereby cleansing himself of whatever sins he had committed in the name of acquiring his gleaming car and discretionary cash. The donator didn’t care that the money he gave would help ensure that the recipient (and his dog) would be encouraged to stay on the sidewalk, where positive reinforcement from liberal Hollywood residents was easier to come by than honest work. All the rich fellow knew was that he somehow felt a little bit better about having more than the other guy.

Not long ago Bill and Melinda Gates announced that they would be dedicating the bulk of their time to giving away their Microsoft fortune. Famed stock market gambler Warren Buffet followed their example shortly thereafter and announced that he, too, would be spending the rest of his life spending the billions he had won at the world’s biggest casino, buying medicine and education and other conduits to a better life for the disadvantaged and dispossessed. Everyone felt good about the news, especially the charity businesses that looked forward to administering the largesse a tiny portion of which — a few million here and there –could reasonably be expected to go toward “overhead” and other essential costs. What no one bothered to ask was the question the Sunset Boulevard donator seemed to have wondered as he tossed crumbled bills at the beggar: How did I come to have so much while others have so little?

We tend to applaud givers for their generosity. The enthusiastic clapping, though, often drowns out the socialists and communists and other critics of capitalism who ask why the Captains of Industry own everything and the vast majority of souls inhabiting this planet own nothing. Our system seems to regard the shedding of one’s fortune as proof of moral goodness. Amassing it, however, isn’t proof of moral turpitude. Or is it? Some people — whom we can safely dismiss as “radicals” — think that most individuals get rich by taking advantage of others, of using human beings as beasts of burden, whether for physical or mental labor. All rich folks, the reasoning goes, are robber barons, with the emphasis on the larceny.

Let us suppose that the world’s billionaires had paid their helpers more, charged their customers less, and “gave away” the source of their wealth by charitably offering the marketplace a product (or idea) at far below a vast profit-making price. For example, instead of monopolizing the computer industry with his Windows operating system, what if Bill Gates had built his company around the guiding principle that eliminating malaria and persistent childhood diseases in Africa was the greater accomplishment? He certainly wouldn’t be The World’s Richest Man — but then millions of impoverished Africans would have more to eat and fewer cases of tuberculosis. And they wouldn’t have to wait 25 years while Bill gouged electronic consumers. Likewise, Mr. Buffet: what if he and his pals at Berkshire Hathaway had used their billions to provide every person on Earth with potable water instead of buying more shares of Coke? He would still be the Wizard of Wall Street, but with fewer private jets at his disposal, and the number of new cholera cases worldwide would plummet.

If it is indeed better to give than it is to receive, perhaps we ought to apply less energy throughout our working lives toward taking and redirect it toward an equitable division of the planet’s resources.

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