More Good Than Anyone Ever
Reader Comments (4)

Steve Jones

I've certainly no objection to the entrepreneurs that have created wealth for others accumulating wealth. I think they have to be distinguished from those that have been merely successful at climbing their way up the slippery corporate (or government) pole. There are many whose main gift is the ability to get their way to into positions and having seen some of the incredibly destructive behaviour of some very senior managers who have hopped from company to company seeking only short term benefits to themselves, then I'm deeply suspicious of that. As we know from the behaviour of those in power in many financial institutions as well as Enron and Worldcom, the temptation and ability to destroy shareholder wealth for short term gain is always there. I have seen several examples of sub-criminal behaviour where very senior directors have enriched themselves at the expense of employees and shareholders. The club at the top of remuneration comittees is a small and select one, and the average shareholder has little sway as their interests are often proxied through the managers of investment funds.

So, I do not think we should mix up those who generate wealth through being entrepreneurs and those who are just gaining the benefit of being ruthless at getting to the top of organisations. However, even among these good folk, and even the ones that have been great benefactors, there have been darker sides. Microsoft have been found guilty of anti-competitive behaviour, ruthlessly crushing potential competitors by techniques designed to embed a monopoly. Another great benefactor, Andrew Carnegie may well (in inflation adjusted terms) have donated more money than Bill Gates, yet he was ruthless when dealing with industrial disputes (and there was the matter of the Johnstown Flood).

One the general issue as to what extent massive disparities in wealth actually matter or not, then there is plenty of work being done on that. The recent evidence is that, in general, the social effects of excessive differences is socially harmful. The issue of freedom also needs to be carefully considered. For many, freedom of decision making over economic matters is very limited indeed so things are not what they might appear. This has even concerned several Conservative politicians as of late.

However, I think the biggest thing I would question is whether Bill Gates is "More Good Than Anyone Ever". That is far more contentious. Donating the most cash will not necessarily be what does the most good. There are many unsung people who can maybe claim to have done more tangible good. There are the pioneers of modern public hygiene systems for a start. Quite how many people owe their lives to Joseph Bazalgette, both in London and other cities that followed suit? What about the politicians who (eventually) supported him? Maybe we ought to allow some of the vaccine developes? Some claim Maurice Hilleman has saved more lives than any other person. Then again perhaps it should go to John Clark Sheehan who developed the first practical system for synthesising penicillin.

However, my vote would probably go to Norman Borlaug whose work essentially founded the green revolution which has been responsible for the saving of untold tens or hundreds of millions of lives in Asia (of course the irony might be that this very success is going to be the enabler for humankind to temporarily, and disastrously, push the planet beyond the limit of sustainable human population levels). However, a hero he must be, and he gets my vote, albeit that his work was largely funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, so you might conceivably claim the Rockefeller family as being, indirectly, the benefactors who have done the most good.


Okay, you win. I'd yield to Borlaug.


Here's a timely article in light of this discussion thread.

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Dozens of U.S. billionaires pledged on Wednesday to give at least 50 percent of their fortunes to charity as part of a philanthropic campaign by two of the world's richest men -- Warren Buffett and Bill Gates.

Based on Forbes magazine's estimates of the billionaires' wealth, at least $150 billion could be given away.

Among the rich joining The Giving Pledge campaign are New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, media moguls Barry Diller and Ted Turner, Oracle co-founder Larry Ellison, "Star Wars" movie maker George Lucas and energy tycoon T. Boone Pickens.

A total of 40 of the richest people in the United States, including Microsoft founder Gates and investor Buffett, now have taken the pledge.

Since launching the campaign in June, Buffett, Gates and his wife Melinda have spoken to about 20 percent of the wealthiest people in the United States -- 70 to 80 billionaires -- in a bid to persuade them to give away their fortunes.

"In most cases we had reason to believe that the people already had an interest in philanthropy," Buffett said. "It was a very soft sell but 40 have signed up."


P.S. Borlaug gets my vote for the most disastrous inventor (and engineer) in history, precisely for the above stated reason.

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