In search of real philanthropy

It is heartwarming to see Bill Gates and Warren Buffett have achieved some success this week with the visit of their traveling philanthropy road show to China. A number of rich Chinese have apparently promised "very generous gifts" to the Gates-Buffett initiative to get billionaires from around the world to give at least half their ...

FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images
FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images
FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images

It is heartwarming to see Bill Gates and Warren Buffett have achieved some success this week with the visit of their traveling philanthropy road show to China. A number of rich Chinese have apparently promised "very generous gifts" to the Gates-Buffett initiative to get billionaires from around the world to give at least half their wealth to philanthropic causes. It has been estimated that the effort by America's two richest men could net up to $150 billion for good causes from the commitments they already have.

It is impossible to fault such efforts at voluntary redistribution of wealth from the infinitesimal few who have the most to the many who have so little. After all philanthropy comes from roots meaning the love of man or mankind and certainly we never can have enough of that in a world in which such sentiments are as spottily distributed and scarce as great personal fortunes.

Still, for all the momentum behind the Gates-Buffet-Clinton Global Initiative modern philanthropy trend, it is important we realize the short-comings of such efforts. Leaving decisions about how assets are distributed to address global problems to the rich is as unjust as letting them have a disproportionate voice in politics or setting any other priorities for the bulk of society. They answer to no one and come with their own biases and knowledge gaps no matter how well intentioned they are. Further, while philanthropy is a useful adjunct to public sector efforts to address social needs it can sometimes serve as a screen or preemptive argument suggesting that either government programs can be cut back on the one hand or that we needn't tax the rich or question the gross inequities in our economic system by which they have benefitted.

It is heartwarming to see Bill Gates and Warren Buffett have achieved some success this week with the visit of their traveling philanthropy road show to China. A number of rich Chinese have apparently promised "very generous gifts" to the Gates-Buffett initiative to get billionaires from around the world to give at least half their wealth to philanthropic causes. It has been estimated that the effort by America’s two richest men could net up to $150 billion for good causes from the commitments they already have.

It is impossible to fault such efforts at voluntary redistribution of wealth from the infinitesimal few who have the most to the many who have so little. After all philanthropy comes from roots meaning the love of man or mankind and certainly we never can have enough of that in a world in which such sentiments are as spottily distributed and scarce as great personal fortunes.

Still, for all the momentum behind the Gates-Buffet-Clinton Global Initiative modern philanthropy trend, it is important we realize the short-comings of such efforts. Leaving decisions about how assets are distributed to address global problems to the rich is as unjust as letting them have a disproportionate voice in politics or setting any other priorities for the bulk of society. They answer to no one and come with their own biases and knowledge gaps no matter how well intentioned they are. Further, while philanthropy is a useful adjunct to public sector efforts to address social needs it can sometimes serve as a screen or preemptive argument suggesting that either government programs can be cut back on the one hand or that we needn’t tax the rich or question the gross inequities in our economic system by which they have benefitted.

No, while we applaud the donor billionaires we should also continue question how we can fix a system that has allowed the creation of something over a thousand billionaires among six billion people, a cadre that has a net worth equal to something like the poorest 2.5 billion of their fellow humans. And we might even encourage even the most generous of these billionaires to go further and campaign as actively for programs that give all the people more say in where the riches produced by society go … programs like income taxes.

In fact, that would be the most moving and groundbreaking initiative this election season … a movement among the rich to embrace an adjustment of the tax code to enable us to stop borrowing from our children to finance a system that enriches so few. That would be real philanthropy … rich Americans arguing for dropping the Bush tax cuts to ensure future generations had a fair shot at a decent life rather toiling to pay for the excesses of their parents and grandparents.

David Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017. Twitter: @djrothkopf
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