Saturday, June 24, 2006

Yes, Bill Gates Misspoke Himself

Tibor R. Machan

The letters section of the morning paper was filled with complaints about my Monday column critical of Bill Gates’ terminology of “giving back to the community.” Folks took off after me for being a libertarian, for sounding like Ayn Rand, for being confused or for saying nothing at all useful.

It’s nice to generate lots of letters for the paper with one’s column, so on that score I am pleased. As to the content, I am afraid readers had a problem with grasping my point, which is, trade isn’t unfair rip-off. Perhaps I didn’t make myself fully clear but more likely most just disliked what I said, namely, that Gates, if he made his wealth honestly, already gave back when he provided his customers with the goods and services he produced. The rest is generosity, charity, philanthropy, kindness, compassion but not “giving back” anything.

Sure, all this may be something unimportant to make mention of to many people but here is my take on it: the world of commerce and business is in desperate need of being better understood. The kind of thinking that produces such language as Bill Gates used is contributing to the widespread hostility toward capitalism and freedom of trade. It is that kind of thinking that spreads the myth that globalization is exploiting poor countries by rich ones. It is the kind of thinking that spreads resentment toward professionals who make a profit off providing their clients and customers with valued services. (Incidentally, that is just the kind of thinking that was on exhibit in the same paper that carried the critical letters, on the front page, featuring a “dissident” doctor who finds fault with his colleagues who make a profit from tending to the sick! As if the media, shoe makers, teachers or basketball players all were doing something wrong for charging people for what they provide for them!)

Despite all the complaints about how I mistreated Bill Gates’ remarks, the shoe is really on the other foot. Too many folks hold very warped ideas about commerce. They believe that it is producers who owe gratitude to society, the community, or customers for their wealth, whereas in fact it is clients and customers who owe gratitude to producers, creative geniuses, and the lot for making their talents and efforts available to the rest of us.

Just think—should it be the likes of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Goethe, Picasso, Michelangelo, Isaac Newton, Rembrandt, Albert Einstein, Frank Lloyd Wright who owe thanks to us all? Are we not the beneficiaries of their brilliant work? According to all those who think Bill Gates owes gratitude to the community, that he needs to give back something to us all, these kinds of innovators and creators should be grateful for the favor we do them when we enjoy the benefits of their work. That is perverse!

Sadly, too many of us go about our lives taking for granted thousands of benefits we would not enjoy if these people didn’t put their minds to work and make available the results to us in the market place, by means of free trade. To then insist that, yes, they must “give back to the community,” even after having made all of this available to the community in the first place (in return for mostly modest prices), is terribly misguided and, I suggest, ungrateful to boot.

But I guess we live in a culture in which the entitlement mindset is running rampant, in which the bulk of the population holds that what creative, productive people make available to us is something they should have by some natural right! It is these creative, productive people who must bow their heads in shame for making a buck from their work, while the rest of us can demand their work and have them thank us for letting them do it.

It is, I am pretty sure, this kind of thinking that’s gradually undermining the original American dream, the one that attracted millions to these shores: Work hard, make your work available to the market, and you shall be rewarded!

It didn’t take libertarians or even Ayn Rand to put this idea in circulation—it was in the air from the beginning of the American experiment. But it is certainly having a hard time being taken seriously now, having been eroded by the welfare state mentality that is so widespread in our time.

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