One of my least-favorite clichés is the one about how people who’ve made it big need to “give back.” What did they steal?
The cliche implies that the only way people can make something of themselves is by doing something bad that then requires penance-i.e., giving back what you have taken.
Kim Dennis, president and CEO of the philanthropic Searle Freedom Trust, has a splendid piece in today’s Wall Street Journal addressing the give-back meme. She writes:
Successful entrepreneurs-turned-philanthropists typically say they feel a responsibility to “give back” to society. But “giving back” implies they have taken something. What, exactly, have they taken? Yes, they have amassed great sums of wealth. But that wealth is the reward they have earned for investing their time and talent in creating products and services that others value. They haven’t taken from society, but rather enriched us in ways that were previously unimaginable.
Dennis also critiques the much-lauded recent announcements from Bill Gates and Warren Buffett that they are signing a pledge to “give back” half their wealth:
It’s an impressive number. Yet some-including Messrs. Gates and Buffett-say it isn’t enough. Perhaps it’s actually too much: the wealthy may help humanity more as businessmen and women than as philanthropists.
What are the chances, after all, that the two forces behind the Giving Pledge will contribute anywhere near as much to the betterment of society through their charity as they have through their business pursuits? In building Microsoft, Bill Gates changed the way the world creates and shares knowledge. Warren Buffett’s investments have birthed and grown innumerable profitable enterprises, making capital markets work more efficiently and enriching many in the process.
Other signers of the pledge, like Oracle’s Larry Ellison and eBay’s Pierre Omidyar, have similarly transformed the way people all over the world exchange information and products. They have democratized the transmission of ideas and goods, creating opportunities for people who never would have had them otherwise.
Part of what this signifies is that Americans have developed a sneering attitude about business, corporations, wealth, and those who create it. We think it’s more noble to work for a nonprofit (and I can say this because I work for one) and forget that the money to do our good works comes from those who have created wealth. Business also creates jobs, which would come in handy for quite a few Americans just about now.