In the annual letter about the state of their philanthropic foundation released earlier this month, Bill and Melinda Gates answered “ten tough questions” that they get commonly asked. The Gateses are honest and cheerful in their responses, and the letter reveals more about their critics than it does about them.
“Why don’t you give money to fight climate change?” they are asked. The Gates Foundation underwrites undeniably worthwhile causes that most liberals would support. The Gateses want to end malaria and HIV, give poor kids a better chance at a good education, and empower women around the globe to provide for their families. But if you don’t tick off every liberal cause, then you are not really committed to change, apparently. Why not global warming, too? (And what about nuclear disarmament and saving the whales?) The Gateses point out that “in philanthropy, you look for problems that can’t be fixed by the market or governments. The clean-energy problem can be fixed by both.” But this is unlikely to assuage critics who believe that the market is the problem, and philanthropy is just there to help government.
“Why do you work with corporations?” others ask. Bill Gates replies: “We think poor people should benefit from the same kind of innovation in health and agriculture that has improved life in the richest parts of the world. Much of that innovation comes out of the private sector.” What does it say about the people asking these questions that they need Gates to explain that corporations make money by creating products that the rest of us find useful, and that make life better?
The critics are not satisfied simply with the improvement of life for the world’s most poor and desperate; they also want to see those at the top taken down a notch. “Is it fair that you have so much influence?” the Gateses are asked. “No,” they answer, but they have too much tact to tell the questioners that “fairness” in itself is not the goal of philanthropy. They note, however, that this question implies another: “If we think it’s unfair that we have so much wealth, why don’t we give it all to the government?” And here they say that, unlike government, foundations can “take a long-term approach to solving problems, and manage high-risk projects that governments can’t take on and corporations won’t.”
The Gates Foundation is hardly a hotbed for funding conservative ideas. Indeed, many on the right have objected to its education efforts—which include backing the Common Core—as well as its efforts to distribute contraception more widely in the developing world. But the questions that the Gateses say that they are most frequently asked all seem to come from the Left. Perhaps conservatives assume that Bill Gates made his own money and that he will fund whatever he likes with it. Leftists, on the other hand, assume no such thing. And no matter how consistent with the liberal agenda the Gates Foundation’s efforts might be, they don’t go far enough.
A good example is the question, “Does saving kids’ lives lead to overpopulation?” Is this a serious question? It appears that we are now at a point where a foundation has to justify its efforts to save the lives of suffering children. Though the Gateses respond that when children are more likely to survive into adulthood, parents have smaller families, they also note, “saving the lives of children is its own justification.”
The Gateses are ultimately optimists. “The world,” they write, “is healthier and safer than ever. The number of children who die every year has been cut in half since 1990 and keeps going down. The number of mothers who die has also dropped dramatically. So has extreme poverty—declining by nearly half in just 20 years. More children are attending school. The list goes on and on.”
For those caught in an elite bubble, where the only news is about impending disaster at home and abroad, Bill Gates’s upbeat attitude will come as a shock. Whether you agree with his methods or specific goals, Gates seeks incremental improvement—whether through medical research and education or an improved standard of living for more people—rather than transformation through a great political or ideological leap forward, as many on the left do. Gates may not “save the world,” but he stands a better chance than his liberal critics do of improving it.
Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Global Citizen