Can Warren Buffett and Bill Gates save the world?
How the Giving Pledge, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett's quest to get billionaires to donate half their wealth to charity, will impact philanthropy and the world's needy.
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"In this case, 40 superwealthy people want to decide what their money will be used for," Peter Krämer, a Hamburg shipping magnate and philanthropist, told the German magazine Der Spiegel. "That runs counter to the democratically legitimate state. In the end, the billionaires are indulging in hobbies that might be in the common good, but are very personal."Skip to next paragraph
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So larger social questions remain. Should these billionaires have the power to pick and choose whom to help? Or is it the government's role to ensure a more equitable distribution of such enormous wealth? Some worry this effort may signal a new era of modern Medicis, in which the richest families, often behind the veil of privacy, direct most efforts for the common good.
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The antecedents of the Giving Pledge, as Buffett pointed out, have deep historical roots in this country. But even before Carnegie and Rockefeller, the impulse to give away money had been woven into the social fabric of the nation. When Alexis de Tocqueville observed the peculiar traits of an emerging American society in the 1830s, he noticed how Americans struggled to find a balance between their unprecedented commitment to individual liberty and the needs of the common good.
It's a struggle that continues, in many ways, to define American political discourse to this day – although Tocqueville sought to probe a deeper, more fundamental feature of the young nation's psyche, one that went beyond questions of government alone. What he found – and admired – was a unique commitment to what he called "voluntary associations."
"Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions constantly form associations," he wrote. "The Americans make associations to give entertainments, to found seminaries, to build inns, to construct churches, to diffuse books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; in this manner they found hospitals, prisons, and schools." Rooted in a deep ambivalence about the sweeping power of government, this voluntary tradition of providing for civic needs and causes has long distinguished American democracy from its European counterparts.
While the next century did see the United States develop systems of public education and various forms of public assistance, as well as public safety nets such as Social Security and Medicare, its citizens have maintained a robust tradition of private giving, whether it be pocket change for bake sales or King Tut-size contributions to a new museum wing.
"I've interviewed Europeans and Americans on this, and Europeans will say philanthropy is an American thing, Americans write big checks," says Michal Ann Strahilevitz, a marketing professor and philanthropy expert at Golden Gate University in San Francisco. "So Europeans don't write the checks, they don't need that ego part, they say. They just vote in a way that encourages a system in which the poor aren't so poor."
Modern American philanthropy began to appear at the end of the 19th century, when new industries took root in a mostly agrarian nation. This gave rise to an unprecedented class of megawealthy industrialists. Andrew Carnegie, the simple bobbin factory worker who eventually built the most profitable enterprise in the world with U.S. Steel, wrote his famous essay, "The Gospel of Wealth," in 1889.
He assailed ostentatious living and the hoarding of fortunes by those with newfound riches, railing against the possible rise of a permanent aristocratic class through inheritance.