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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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"I think there is a certain amount of peer pressure when you do have people of great wealth who are very visible in their giving," says Hilton, who disburses the proceeds of the family's nearly $2 billion foundation, including the $1.5 million Hilton Humanitarian Prize, one of the largest annual prizes of any sort. "Specifically, when you look at what Warren Buffett and Bill Gates have been doing, because they are at the top of their game in the business world and are looked up to by hundreds of millions of people ... there's no doubt in my mind that that has great influence on everyone, especially those who are in their same peer group." (Hilton's father, Barron, is a signatory to the Giving Pledge, though he, too, had already promised most of his $2.5 billion fortune to the Hilton Foundation.)

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Still, many on the Forbes 400 list of the richest Americans have given Buffett's cold calls the quick brushoff. And as he and Gates take their cause around the globe, the responses have been less than wildly enthusiastic. In September, they visited China in an effort to begin, at the very least, a conversation about philanthropy with the ever-growing number of Chinese billionaires. According to press descriptions, the Chinese were curious, but tepid.

Mexican tycoon Carlos Slim Helu, currently the world's richest man, has said he believes creating jobs, not charitable giving, is the best way to eradicate poverty. In Europe, billionaires have balked, too.

"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."

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.

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