I suspect that my reaction to news of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s plan to give away 99 percent of his Facebook stock, currently worth about $45 billion, may not have been the same as yours.
The corporate impact of the decision by the world’s 7th-richest man (and by far the youngest of anyone even vaguely in the same financial league) is so large that it required an SEC filing. Zuckerberg and his wife, pediatrician Priscilla Chan, posted a public letter to their newborn daughter, Maxima, explaining their interest in funding research into disease cure and prevention, “advancing human potential,” and “promoting equality” along with a “new approach” to effective philanthropy.
Zuckerberg joins the list of mega-rich Americans and others who have made “The Giving Pledge,” a campaign created by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and famed investor Warren Buffett that describes itself as “a commitment by the world’s wealthiest individuals and families to dedicate the majority of their wealth to philanthropy.”
In short, it asks billionaires to give away at least half of their wealth to charity, particularly to do so during their lives and not just as a bequest upon death — which is why Zuckerberg plans to “sell or gift” up to $1 billion of Facebook stock during each of the next three years.
Others who have signed the Giving Pledge include AOL co-founder Steve Case, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, Oracle’s Larry Ellison, investor Carl Icahn, Home Depot co-founder Bernie Marcus, Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk, financial data pioneer Michael Bloomberg, and media magnate Ted Turner. Syrian-born Brazilian Jewish billionaire Elie Horn just joined the pledge in the past few days.
Lest I be accused of preferring misanthropy to philanthropy, I’d like to stipulate that I greatly prefer for large fortunes to be disposed of through charitable enterprises guided by people with a history of good (or at least interesting) ideas, and motivation to use the money as efficiently and effectively as possible, rather than having much of those fortunes confiscated by a bloated and wasteful government.
So I’m grateful for, and the world is undoubtedly a better place due to, the charitable impulses of some of the wealthiest nation’s wealthiest people.
And while it’s easy for me to say, being neither the provider nor the recipient of a large inheritance, when it comes to leaving piles of money to children, I am sympathetic to Warren Buffett’s view that “a very rich person should leave his kids enough to do anything but not enough to do nothing.”
Still, when the uber-wealthy promise to give away their fortunes, there’s a part of me that can’t help but anticipate with some annoyance the inevitable fawning reactions of the commentariat that the particular billionaire is “giving back” — as if he or she had taken something, as if depleting a fortune is more newsworthy or praiseworthy than earning it (even though earning it seems more difficult and a precondition for giving it away).
Unfortunately, some of the billionaires use that same language, suggesting either false modesty or that even they don’t really understand what they’ve done and how they’ve done it. Indeed, separate from their Progressive-sounding but utterly-predictable-for-rich-millennials wish list (such as to “empower everyone” and “build inclusive and welcoming communities”), the Chan-Zuckerberg letter betrays an unfortunately collectivist mentality, discussing their “moral responsibility” and urging people to “collectively direct our resources,” as if resources are “ours” instead of “theirs” or “yours” or “mine.”
Unless a person inherited or stole his riches — and I don’t believe that anyone mentioned above falls into that category — both in moral and economic terms the wealthy have by definition already given back.
Let me explain: When a consumer, whether an individual or a corporation, buys a product, whether for long-term use (like software or a pen or a tractor) or for one-time use/consumption (like food or nails or tickets to watch the Broncos beat the Patriots), in nearly every case the transaction is made voluntarily. This means that the purchaser makes a trade with a producer, giving an amount of money less than (or at least not more than) the value they perceive in the product or service purchased.
After all, would you pay $1 for something that you thought only benefited you by 50 cents (even if that benefit is intangible, such as the enjoyment of going to a movie or eating an individual-sized chocolate lava cake)?
For example, if you spend $99.99 for a year of Microsoft Office 365, it’s because you believe that the value to you in increased productivity, in its use as a tool to allow you to take on projects or tasks you couldn’t otherwise couldn’t do efficiently if at all, is more than the C-note you parted with to buy it. (Microsoft on the other hand, values the hundred bucks more than they value the software license they sold you, but that’s not the main point.)
The same goes for advertisers spending money on Facebook or CNN, traders paying a monthly fee for a Bloomberg terminal, contractors buying hammers and wallboard at Home Depot, and almost every other of the hundreds of millions of daily transactions across the United States alone.
In almost every one of these transactions, by collecting some number of dollars from purchasers, the producers of goods and services have made the purchasers richer — at least the purchasers think so, or they wouldn’t have spent their hard-earned cash.
Liberals tend to look at billionaires as lucky beneficiaries of “society’s” efforts, disparaging them with “you didn’t build that” and “at a certain point you’ve made enough money” rhetoric. Progressives look at the successful the same way a leech once looked at a vein on my foot. (No, that picture is not actually of my foot.)
After years of hearing the twisted jealousy of the left, too many Americans believe that billionaires are “takers” and therefore have a duty to “give back.” That turns reality — and morality — on its head. These people have been wildly successful because they have made the lives of millions of human beings wildly more productive, secure, healthy and even fun.
(This discussion applies much less to those who inherited their money, although they too provide economic benefits to society, and excludes entirely those who stole their money such as Vladimir Putin, whom some suspect to be the world’s richest man.)
Today’s ultra-wealthy have already given us so much; it is we who should be grateful to them for doing something so important (or at least so desirable to consumers) and so well that it allowed them to earn billions of dollars. Their affluence is a measure of their contributions to society, not their impoverishing of it.
As laudable as it is that Mark Zuckerberg and other participants in the Giving Pledge direct their wealth toward charitable enterprises that reflect their goals and values, what should truly be celebrated is that they were able to earn those fortunes to begin with.
No matter how well the billionaires target their altruistic impulses, they have improved our lives more by making their fortunes than by disposing of them.
When Bill Gates and Warren Buffett and Mark Zuckerberg and so many other wealthy people decide that non-profit foundations and charitable causes rather than their children (or government) will inherit the bulk of their wealth, they’re not “giving back” — they’re just giving.
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