More on CharityGate

Steven Bates, the Yellow Doggerel Democrat, writes a good reply to my arguments about Bill Gate’s philanthropic urges. He correctly identifies the core of my discomfort (or one of the cores–I may not be the best judge of the merits of my argument) and offers a good argument in defense of Gates’ charity. Ultimately, his reply rests on the question of how Gates’ philanthropy differs from the charitable giving of the rest of us. I’ve given a few dollars to causes I believe in, ranging from the Revolutionary Association of Women in Afghanistan to Jews for Racial and Economic Justice to the Smithsonian to Pacifica’s WBAI–how is that different from Gates doing the same thing with the charity’s of his choice.

I want to reiterate that I’m not against charitable giving per se, nor even large-scale philanthropic giving at Bill Gates’ level. Rather, I am concerned with the issues of power around such giving, the way that giving on Gates’ scale (as opposed to the average person’s charity) warps the field of social services by focusing resources in particular areas–areas dictated by the interests of the wealthy. I am even thankful that those funds are being made available–but I am made uncomfortable by the randomness with which those funds have come to be used for Gates’ specific set of interests. If Gates had been rather interested in the traffick in women and children, or in child labour in Indonesia, or whatever, those are the areas that would have received his funds, not reproductive health and infectious disease issues.

Because of the immensity of Gates’ wealth (which outweighs many countries’ GDPs) his philanthropy cannot help but massively restructure the fields in which he invests–just as Microsoft’s investments have shaped the development of the IT field over the last decade-plus. Gates is a shrewd businessman, and I am sure that he has considered his charitable giving shrewdly, investing in fields that seem to him to offer the greatest potential benefit and the most efficient application of his funds. But is he necessarily the person best-equipped to make those sorts of decisions? The way we think of property tells us that Gates is free to use his money in whatever way he sees fit, and we should be thankful that he has chosen to apply it in the service of mankind, but maybe he is not the best person to decide how his wealth should be distributed.

Deeper than this is Gates’ involvement in the system on which his wealth is premised. As I said before, the conditions that made Gates wealthy are the same conditions that make other people poor. Humanity, rather than being able to apply that wealth widely to problems, has had to wait until Gates’ personal decision to apply it narrowly. (I should note that it’s not just Gates, but all the beneficiaries of massive and rising inequalities in wealth distribution–Gates is just the example at hand. Gates has chosen to invest in causes I believe in, rather than, say, the anti-abortion movement, or the family values movement, but that doesn’t change the power dynamics at play.)

It is this investment in remedying the symptoms of massive exploitation that I find questionable. The same patent laws that Gates has used to bolster his personal fortune (and that of his company) have been used by pharmaceutical companies to deny access to medical care in the countries that Gates now wants to support it. The poverty that Gates exploited by using prison labour is the same poverty that causes the spread of infectious diseases. What Gates is decidedly not doing is using his wealth to challenge the basis of that wealth, to forestall the exploitation that lays at the root of his pet causes.

How does that jibe with the more typical charitable giving of myself or of Stephen Bates, who even works as on the executive committee of his favored charity? First, I disagree with Bates’ characterization of this as "a difference of scale, not substance"–the quantitative difference between our giving and Gates’ is so large as to become a qualitative difference. The application of several times many Third World country’s GDP just in the domain of health services will have a massive impact, far outstripping any typical individual’s, or even most non-profit organizations’, potential effect.

But more compelling to me is the source of that wealth. It’s not so much that I consider Gates’ wealth "ill-gotten" (to use Bates’ term) simply because he has carried out some unsavory, anti-competitive business practices. There are many sources of wealth, and Gates’ is probably one of the least malignant–unlike some companies, Microsoft does not appear to have been involved in acts of genocide, torture, murder, or the overthrow of democratic governments (I could be wrong about Microsoft’s relatively clean hands in this regard, however). But Microsoft has been, under Gates’ direct leadership and afterwards, complicit in the expansion of corporate power at the expense of public power, in the drive for lowered wages and higher profits, in the dissemination of a corporate, free-market ideology that drives IMF sanctions and structural adjustment programs–all of which have directly or indirectly contributed to the disempowerment of people around the world and the denial of basic services. Although individual workers indirectly support this system when we work for companies like Microsoft, we have not been instrumental in defining it and in bringing it about. The wealth that we manage to accumulate is, roughly, sufficient to sustain ourselves and our families and to participate in our communities, part of which can include charitable giving–it is not enough to effect massive systemic change in the way wealth is distributed.

Where Bates’ argument is most compelling, to me, is in its pragmatism. I agree that, given the state of the world at the moment, I’d rather have someone like Bill Gates blowing his wad on vaccines and pre-natal care clinics than on yachts and sports cars. I, and ostensibly Bates, give part of what’s left over after our basic needs are met because we recognize that the system is not meeting those needs for everyone, that some people and some causes are not taken care of in our society. We contribute as best we can. One of the reasons our system is unable to meet these needs, however, is because of the wealth-acquitisitiveness of Gates and his hyper-wealthy cohort. The resources that they have drawn away from these services (and which they may or may not choose to selectively invest back into them) has produced the gap that good samaritans try to fill in some limited way.

I don’t think Gates is a bad person for divesting himself of his wealth in the service of society–I think he is a person who is trying to do the Right Thing in a system that doesn’t normally encourage doing good. But I don’t admire him for giving away money that he shouldn’t, in any ethical framework worthy of the name, have had in the first place, that was gained at the expense of a wide swath of human necessities, some of which he proposes to replace now. Ultimately, I am proposing a reexamination of the basis foundations of our society, and I know that’s not very practical. Maybe I should simply keep my peace, rather than risking the flight of Gates’ and his fellows’ capital from the few areas they have chosen to feed it back into. But I feel that these questions should be raised and discussed, and I thank Bates (and before him, Jeanne d’Arc) for giving me (and I hope others) a chance to do so. As for Gates, maybe he has had a change of heart, as Bates suggests–I think that having a family can do that to some people–but that doesn’t exonerate him for his past and ongoing negative contribution to the shape of current affairs.

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