Is Bill Gates a Trojan Horse?

Bill Gates gives away huge sums of money. I could provide some links here to verify that he gives away huge piles of cash, but, really, is anyone going to claim he does not? It is obvious that he could not give away so much money if he did not happen to have enormous bank balances to begin with. So, thank goodness Bill Gates was able to become so insanely rich. And thank goodness all those corporate sponsors of aid were able to amass gigantic storehouses of funds to distribute globally to alleviate poverty and disease while promoting free markets and democracy. Except maybe it is not that simple.Andrew Carnegie

Andrew Carnegie saw philanthropy as a duty of the wealthy. The mere fact that someone was able to obtain great wealth is evidence enough for man that that person is a great judge of what should be done with the money. The wealthy must serve as role models and administer funds in ways that are good for the poorer members of society, even if their choices are not popular. Carnegie said:

“This, then, is held to be the duty of the man of Wealth: First, to set an example of modest, unostentatious living, shunning display or extravagance; to provide moderately for the legitimate wants of those dependent upon him; and after doing so to consider all surplus revenues which come to him simply as trust funds, which he is called upon to administer, and strictly bound as a matter of duty to administer in the manner which, in his judgment, is best calculated to produce the most beneficial results for the community–the man of wealth thus becoming the mere agent and trustee for his poorer brethren, bringing to their service his superior wisdom, experience and ability to administer, doing for them better than they would or could do for themselves.”

Apparently, the wealthy fear giving the money directly to the poor might corrupt them or tempt them to bring about their own destruction. So, the benevolent man of means, and Carnegie does not mention women of wealth, should work for the care and improvement of the lower classes.

And in doing so, the wealthy establish not only their honor, but also their power. As Thomas Hobbes said, “There can be no greater argument to a man, of his own power, than to find himself able not only to accomplish his own desires, but also to assist other men in theirs: and this is that conception wherein consisteth charity.”  Through charity, the wealthy shape the aspirations of society, the resources for improvement, and the goals of the impoverished. The poor cannot be trusted to make autonomous decisions about what is good and proper for the course of society. In order to receive the generosity of the powerful, the weak must assume a position of obedience and servitude. The superior minds will lead with love if only the grateful masses will follow.

But it does not end there—the wealthy engage in a kind of philanthropy that actually seeks to oppress and exploit the poor. This is true in many instances, but it currently most obvious in some forms of foreign aid donations.

In the current political climate in the United States, we often hear that aiding people engenders a culture of dependence. Most people imagine that the recipients of aid become too lazy to work for their own improvement, but that is not how aid creates dependence. Rather, it can create dependence by destroying any possibility of self-sustaining local markets. Economist Dambisa Moyo sums up the problem of aid to Africa when she says, “One wonders how a system of flooding foreign markets with American food, which puts local farmers out of business, actually helps better Africa.” Michaela Schieesl made a similar point, saying, “The United States spends $1.2 billion on food for the world’s hungry, making it the biggest provider of food aid. It is also the biggest contributor to the UN’s World Food Program (WFP). But this seemingly charitable commitment comes with a major hitch: Instead of donating money, the United States donates food, almost all of which it produces itself.”

The US donates food not as a means of helping struggling societies, but rather as a means of subsidizing American farmers and agribusiness. By dumping free food grown in the US, farmers in foreign countries are put out of businesses. Of course, if they turn to alternative crops such as poppy, coca or even tobacco, the farmers are condemned for contributing to the global drug trade and supporting violence and addiction.

The ETC Group in Canada now warns us of another scheme to use philanthropy to help entrench monopoly powers of transnational corporations under the guise of aiding poor farmers:

“The world’s two richest men – Bill Gates and Mexico’s Carlos Slim – are working with CIMMYT (the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center) to make bargain GE seeds and traits available to farmers in the global South. The notion that farmers will benefit from a post-patent regulatory regime and Gene Giant charity is patently absurd.”

This international aid effort has the effect of ensuring more and more of the world’s food production will be controlled by transnational corporation promoting market-based “solutions” to global food insecurity. The ETC Group notes that the World Economic Forum’s New Vision for Agriculture, which includes all the giant gene producers, describes itself as working with G8 and G20 to “foster multi-stakeholder collaboration to achieve sustainable agricultural growth through market-based solutions.”

Not all aid is bad, however, and giving can save and improve lives. Moyo and other critics of aid are quick to point out the difference between rescue or relief aid and aid that permanently alters economic structures. My opinion is that smaller donors tend to choose charities based on how they relieve suffering rather than how they either guide, manipulate, or oppress the poor. Modest earners give a higher percentage of their income than the super rich.  In an article for The Atlantic, Ken Stern noted,  “In 2011, the wealthiest Americans—those with earnings in the top 20 percent—contributed on average 1.3 percent of their income to charity. By comparison, Americans at the base of the income pyramid—those in the bottom 20 percent—donated 3.2 percent of their income.”   Stern added that among donations from the wealthy,  “Not a single one of them went to a social-service organization or to a charity that principally serves the poor and the dispossessed.” More modest earners are more likely to look out for the interest of the poor.

Addressing income inequality would have two positive effects: First, it would help alleviate the need for any aid. Second, it would help more modest earners to give more and give more effectively. And, no, lifting people off the floor will not make them behave as those at the very top (in the stratosphere of wealth disparities). Rather, as the poor enter the middle class, they give more than the super wealthy and give with an aim to relieving suffering and not to creating monopoly power or consumer dependence.

Also, be sure to read Peter Buffett’s comments on the same subject here.

Finally, for an example of a charity operating from the ground up, please see Shoulder to the Stone.

Teaching Ethics to Greedy Bastards

When a corporate executive, high-powered lawyer, or well-funded medical researcher is exposed for egregious unethical behavior, we often say it would have been a good idea for that person to have had a class in ethics with some follow-up training. We’d like to think that with the proper ethics training even the most heartless sociopath could be encouraged to at least follow some of the rules.

And if we can’t (note: we can’t) encourage bad people to be good people, what are ethicists worth? Well, our roles fall into several categories: 1. Providing ethical answers to dilemmas. 2. Offering ethical analysis of a particular problem. 3. Teaching ethical decision-making, which makes a good-faith assumption that the decision maker is sincere in wanting to be ethical. 4. Holding wrongdoers accountable for their behavior.

The first category is offered to clients who don’t want to take complete responsibility for their ethical decisions. Once a professional ethicist has offered an opinion on whether something is above board, an organization can say, proudly, “All our policies and procedures have been reviewed by someone with extensive training and expertise in ethics and found to be compliant with all ethical and legal codes.” Indeed, it can be a very good idea for an organization to get an outsider to review policies for possible ethical problems.

The second category is related, perhaps a subset of the first. When institutions encounter a particularly sticky issue, they might ask an ethicist to help them work through all the ethical considerations and explore how various ethical theories can help them solve the dilemma. Again, a useful role for the ethicist.

The third category involves training. Rather than giving answers to ethical questions, the ethicist can teach motivated individuals to analyze various conflicts on their own. Most people know how to think ethically, but they sometimes forget some of the considerations that professionals might find to be second nature.  Developing a more thorough approach to ethical approaches can benefit individuals and organization alike. It cannot, however, turn a bad person in to a good one. Evil people don’t lack ethical tools—they lack a conscience.

So, what do we do about the evil people? An important role for ethicists, in my considered and passionately held opinion, is to cry foul when individuals and institutions engage in egregious behavior. And when ethicists disagree on what is an egregious action, fervent debate erupts in the public sphere, benefitting the public and everyone involved, or so it should be. When ethicists sound the alarm that some behavior is abhorrent and shameful, a public chorus against such actions can at least ensure that the bad actors confront public scrutiny.

Think it doesn’t work? Remember in 2011 when executives at Transocean received bonuses for their safety record after the explosion in the Gulf of Mexico killed 11 and sent millions of gallons of oil streaming into the water? After public outcry, the executives thought better of keeping those bonuses and donated them to the Deepwater Horizon Memorial Fund. Social regulation pushes and pulls behavior through honor and shame. In responding to abhorrent behavior, Kwame Anthony Appiah says, “Shame, and sometimes even carefully calibrated ridicule, may be the tools we need. Not that appeals to morality—to justice, to human rights—are irrelevant.”

Most of us evaluate ethical theories in the following way: Knowing that I am an ethical person, which ethical theory best fits my behavior? Following this method, we can all justify our actions through theoretical ethics as we simply seek out the theories that validate our behavior. Given that we all have justification for our behavior, public outcry is not likely to immediately shake our perception of what is appropriate, and, indeed, the public rarely speaks as one voice. Further, the common view is often wrong, or so I judge it to be. Bertrand Russell once said, “In view of the silliness of the majority of mankind, a widespread belief is more likely to be foolish than sensible.” Indeed.

Many people, especially those in power, feel their behavior is beyond reproach. They seem to think they could not have gained power if they were not deserving of it. Public outcry and public discourse, can remind them that they are, in common with the rest of us, flawed and fallible human beings. What this means is that we must raise our voices, express what we find shameful and honorable, and join or create a conversation over morality, dignity, and justice. Only when we suppress our voices do we lose. Only our common humanity makes our salvation possible.

Modern Libertarians Hate Thomas Malthus

Whether they are familiar with his work or not, many modern libertarians echo some of the ideas of Thomas Malthus when they advocate austerity in public policy. Most notably, Malthus claimed that the “poor laws” of England of his time deprived the poor of any liberty and independence. He felt that the poor would have more self-respect and freedom if they could provide for themselves and their families through their own labor.

Thomas Malthus

It was Malthus, not Darwin, who first mentioned a struggle for existence. In his 1798 screed, “An Essay on the Principle of Population,” he
wrote,

“Restless from present distress, flushed with the hope of fairer prospects, and animated with the spirit of hardy enterprise, these daring adventurers were likely to become formidable adversaries to all who opposed them. The peaceful inhabitants of the countries on which they rushed could not long withstand the energy of men acting under such powerful motives of exertion. And when they fell in with any tribes like their own, the contest was a struggle for existence, and they fought with a desperate courage, inspired by the rejection that death was the punishment of defeat and life the prize of victory.”

In the essay, Malthus basically argued that hardship limits population but abundance leads to population explosions. For this reason, feeding the poor is a bad idea, as it will encourage wanton reproduction and the survival of infants into adulthood. By helping the poor survive, they would then multiply and deplete the planet of all its resources. It is the wealthy, of course, who consume the most resources, but even at that, Malthus did not have quite the same view of some austerity minded people of the 21st century.

For one, Mathus wanted to protect the value of farm labor. He said,

“Every endeavour should be used to weaken and destroy all those institutions relating to corporations, apprenticeships, etc., which cause the labours of agriculture to be worse paid than the labours of trade and manufactures. For a country can never produce its proper quantity of food while these distinctions remain in favour of artisans. Such encouragements to agriculture would tend to furnish the market with an increasing quantity of healthy work, and at the same time, by augmenting the produce of the country, would raise the comparative price of labour and ameliorate the condition of the labourer.”

Efforts to drive down the wages of farm labor are, then, anti-Malthusian. He also did not believe in leaving the poor with no help for work and redemption. While he objected to the “poor laws” of his day, he did believe in a tax-supported programs to provide employment for the poor. Thus,

“County workhouses might be established, supported by rates upon the whole kingdom, and free for persons of all counties, and indeed of all nations. The fare should be hard, and those that were able obliged to work. It would be desirable that they should not be considered as comfortable asylums in all difficulties, but merely as places where severe distress might find some alleviation. A part of these houses might be separated, or others built for a most beneficial purpose, which has not been infrequently taken notice of, that of providing a place where any person, whether native or foreigner, might do a day’s work at all times and receive the market price for it.”

Public works projects, such as those put in place by FDR, can alleviate much suffering while also benefitting the public good through improved infrastructure and public service. Note that Malthus did not advocate putting poor people in prison and forcing them to work for free.  Malthus did believe in treating the poor with respect and providing opportunities for honest employment for the betterment of society. Modern libertarians would do well to recognize the basic human desire for dignity and self-respect. When we help one another, we are free.