Bill Gates Should Keep His
Bill Gates earned his fortune and he has no obligation to "give it back" to those who didn't.
By Robert W. Tracinski
The recent declarations by Bill Gates and his family that the world's richest man intends to give away most of his fortune before he dies has met with a bizarre response. One would expect the world's self-declared "humanitarians" to greet this extraordinary act of generosity—Gate's fortune tops $100 billion, and he has already pledged $17 billion of that—with praise, admiration and gratitude. By their professed standards, Gates should be viewed as a hero. In reality, however, the announcements have been met with muted praise at best—but more widely with indifference or cynical criticism. Why?
PC Computing editor John Dvorak carps that giving money to provide computers for libraries and classrooms is too self-interested, that it is mere "marketing" for Microsoft. And, of course, Gates has met with incessant criticism that he is not giving his fortune away quickly enough—that he should give it all away now.
The common theme of these criticisms is that Gates is being too self-assertive—that he is spending the money as he sees fit, to promote his own particular interests and values, and in ways that might conceivably benefit him. In other words, the complaint is that Gates is acting as if this is his money to be given away on his schedule and in accordance with his interests.
But the fact is that it is his money. Gates has earned his fortune by his own effort. His wealth did not come from an inheritance or a government grant. He did not exploit it from his employees, many of whom have become millionaires, or from his investors, who have profited spectacularly. Nor did he gain that money at the expense of his customers, who have gained enormous increases in their productivity.
There is no way to avoid the fact that Bill Gates's money was made by his own work and effort, and, most of all, by his thinking. He created his billions by building an enormously productive organization, encouraging new innovations, predicting technological trends, and creating new products.
The criticism of Gates comes from the opposite premise: the view that Gates did not create and does not own his fortune. This view is based, at root, on a Marxist premise: that the businessman is a thief who appropriates the wealth produced collectively by "society"—as if "society" sat behind Bill Gates's desk and did his work for him. Thus, in this view, the businessman has an obligation to "give back" the wealth he has stolen.
On these premises, the criticism of Gates would be justified. If Gates has merely appropriated society's resources—then he has no right to use those resources in a way that clashes with society's wishes. If he is merely "giving back" to society the money to which it already has a right—then he has no right to withhold that money for his own purposes. The only course of action fully consistent with the idea that Gates's fortune belongs to society would be for him to give up everything immediately—and to hand it over to whatever agency steps forward to proclaim itself as the best representative of society's needs.
Gates himself accepts this basic premise, describing himself as having the "privilege" of being "a steward of some of society's resources." But this is in fact a grave injustice, and one that the victim, unfortunately, is cooperating with. Gates is not a steward of "society's" resources, for the simple reason that "society" did not produce his fortune: he did. Rather, it is the spokesmen for "society" who are acting as parasites when they demand that a businessman take the wealth he has earned and "give it back" to those who did not earn it.
Phrases like "giving back" have a superficial air of benevolence because of their association with acts of generosity toward one's fellow man. But the actual meaning of the phrase is that the businessman is to be treated as a slave who has no right to the wealth he has produced. There is no other explanation for the fact that Gates has received criticism and hostility as a reward for his unprecedented generosity.
There may be good reasons for Gates to give away his billions. He may decide that it is more money than he could ever managed to spend on his own personal enjoyment, or he may prefer to see the money go to causes that he personally values instead of to heirs who may not deserve it. But we should always remember that it is his money, that it is his choice to give it away, and that he has a right to expect gratitude rather than hostility in return.
—Robert W. Tracinski is editor of the Intellectual Activist.
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