Thursday, June 15, 2006

Bill Gates, Shut up Already

Tibor R. Machan

No doubt he is a genius when it comes to software and innumerable gadgets and such; I am really pleased he got into computers big time. I certainly got a lot from that in my own line of work.

But Bill Gates really needs to shut about some other things he is confused about. Like his claim the other day, when he announced his impending retirement and turn to full time philanthropy, that he “needs to give back to the community.” Why? Did he steal something from people? Did they lend him something he needs to return? What on earth was he talking about?

People who get rich ordinarily aren’t stealing the wealth they obtain—they trade for it what they have to offer—what they have invented or invested in or created, produced, however one wants to put it. When Picasso painted his works and then sold them and made money from them, he wasn’t a thief. When Shakespeare and Arthur Miller wrote their plays and made money from this, they didn’t steal anything from anyone. And when Bill Gates invented all the things he could and then sold it all to people who were willing to buy it, he didn’t confiscate anyone’s wealth but earned it.

Doesn’t Bill Gates understand this elementary fact of commerce? That’s sad. He must have blindly, thoughtlessly picked up some of the nonsense being peddled by rich-bashing folks across the centuries without making the crucial distinction that many of the early rich did, in fact, steal their wealth from others—through military conquests, through out and out theft, through extortion and other violent means. But the wealthy today can easily go about making their wealth, not stealing it. Bill Gates, for example, made most of his wealth by doing what others wanted done for them for which they paid him and from which he became wealthy. He owes nothing “back” to anyone.

Which is not to say there is anything amiss with Gate’s wanting to be of help to millions of Third World poor and sick people. Indeed, his generosity is clearly evident and ought to be widely appreciated, not only by those who receive his largesse but also by others who are not able to give much and can rest easy that someone else is doing so.

None of this has anything to do with “giving something back” to society, the community, the world, to humanity or whatever. That idea is a relic of a perverse, reactionary theory that when someone gains in trade, someone else must lose. It was called “exploitation” by Karl Marx and has swept the world to such an extent that not only out and out enemies of capitalism but some major capitalists have bought into it. But it is completely wrong.

Exploitation has two senses. One means taking unfair advantage of someone—like if someone is inordinately sensitive to, say, cold weather and you are the only one with a blanket but in some special situation demand that you be paid for it way above the ordinary market price. There are undoubtedly such cases. But if I am at dinner time hungry and someone who owns a restaurant sells me food, thus exploiting the opportunity to feed me for pay, that kind of exploitation is not just innocent but out and out admirable. It’s entrepreneurship. Of if you love classical music and you pay an orchestra to perform some of it for you at a symphony hall, you are exploiting their skills in a most benevolent way, as they are exploiting your interests in their performance.

Bill Gates did exploit the fact that millions and millions of people found what he produced very helpful to them, as they all exploited the fact that he was very interested in his work. And there is absolutely nothing amiss with this, quite the contrary. It is admirable when people seek out a market for their skills and deliver to potential purchasers what they want and get rich in the process. Nothing needs to be given back—they have already done the “giving” in the exchange that has transpired. This is no different from what happens when we trade with basketball, tennis, baseball, or football players, entertainers of all kinds, doctors, dentists etc., and so forth to mutual benefit. No one is left with obligations to do any paying back.

Another thing that’s wrong with Bill Gate’s claim is that it makes it appear that generosity or philanthropy should be confined to the very wealthy. They made a lot and now they need to give some of it back, whereas the rest of us who made not so much have no business worrying about those who are in dire straits. But this is entirely wrong. Generosity is something we all should cultivate in us, be we rich or poor. Bill Gate’s claims about his unique obligation to “give back” could encourage some people to get a very warped idea about the nature of generosity.

No comments: