New Ideal - Reason | Individualism | Capitalism
Peter Singer, Bill Gates

The Man Biting the Hands of Creators Who Feed the World

Occasionally we write about what we’re currently reading, watching or listening to—not at the level of a full review, but simply to point out arguments, perspectives and issues worth considering. This is one of those articles.

For much of the past year, I’ve watched the sustained, moralistic furor directed against the tech industry unfold online. Members of Congress have grilled Mark Zuckerberg about Facebook’s privacy policy and newsfeed management in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and President Trump has targeted for its reliance on the U.S. Postal Service.

And yet most of this has unfolded online. I’ve watched congressmen interrogate Mark Zuckerberg about allegations that he had suppressed unpopular viewpoints—as online commenters piled on, venting their hatred for Zuckerberg, on Facebook Live, as they and I watched the hearings for free. And even as Trump chided Amazon for its alleged unfair deal with the Post Office, reports emerged making clear just how much the USPS depends on Amazon revenue, and how heavily the U.S. government, more generally, depends on Amazon’s cloud data services.

It is astounding that people living in the modern world should treat the goods and services created by entrepreneurs as givens, as though they are impersonal forces of nature to be counted on, invariably, like the rising of the sun. What is especially shocking is how this attitude can be combined with an outlook that morally criticizes or condemns the very business activity that produces those goods and services.

There is a particularly glaring case of this attitude in the work of the world-famous philosopher Peter Singer, whose book Famine, Affluence and Morality we recently reviewed in the third-year seminar of the Objectivist Academic Center program.

It is astounding that people living in the modern world should treat the goods and services created by entrepreneurs as givens, as though they are impersonal forces of nature to be counted on, invariably, like the rising of the sun.
Singer’s book is a slim volume that features an influential journal article of the same title, originally published in 1971. At the time, a major cyclone and a civil war between what were then East and West Pakistan had caused a refugee crisis in what is now Bangladesh. Singer used this event as a “springboard” to make the moral claim that people in wealthy countries should be doing massively more to help people suffering in the Third World. The moral burden on people living in comfort and wealth in the West is so weighty that they should at least give up the luxuries and conveniences of modern living, and at most give up so much that we would very nearly reach the circumstances of the suffering refugees themselves. If we don’t do this, we are being immoral. He makes this clear in his preface, suggesting that his article is controversial because it argues that “very few of us are living fully ethical lives.”

Singer’s reasons for coming to this surprising conclusion are important to keep in mind. He takes as “uncontroversial” the following principle: “if it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it.” To illustrate his principle, he describes a memorable image: if we pass by a shallow pond and see a child drowning, we should wade in and save the child even if it means getting our clothes muddy.

If we agree with Singer about wading in to save the child, he thinks the implications are universal, since he thinks his “uncontroversial” principle, understood from a “moral point of view,” applies not only to children in our immediate vicinity, but to anyone in the world whom we have the power to help. Because there are many such people in just as much danger as the drowning child, and very few who are willing to help them, we ought to give up our ordinary comforts and send money we’d otherwise spend on ourselves overseas.

Singer is not merely recommending this as an act of charity. He is demanding it as a moral duty. “We ought to give the money away, and it is wrong not to do so,” he says. (Emphasis added.)

In the preface to his book, Singer claims that his advice is still as applicable today as it was in 1971, and in the postscript to the book (originally published as a piece in the New York Times), he notes that as of 2006, there are still 10 million children who die every year “from avoidable, poverty-related causes.”

In the same postscript, he claims that his thesis has special implications for the wealthiest among us, people like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett. After all, they have the power to save the equivalent of millions of drowning (or starving or sick) children. Singer acknowledges that Bill Gates has already agreed to give away at least $30 billion of his fortune to various initiatives to improve health and welfare around the globe, while Warren Buffett is giving away $44 billion. You might expect such acts of philanthropy to elicit effusive praise from Singer. But they don’t.

Singer’s evasive turn of phrase leaves unnamed the fundamental cause of wealth creation: the innovative mind’s production of valuable goods and services that benefit people’s lives.
Singer begins instead by raising questions about what motivates Gates to give away so much. “The rich must—or so some of us with less money like to assume—suffer sleepless nights because of their ruthlessness in squeezing out competitors, firing workers, shutting down plants, or whatever else they have to do to acquire wealth.” Singer never challenges the claim that wealth is acquired through “ruthless” means, and leaves open the possibility that Gates is only giving away his money to ease his conscience and “consciously or subconsciously” trying to improve his image.

“Whatever else” do people have to do to acquire wealth? Singer’s evasive turn of phrase leaves unnamed the fundamental cause of wealth creation: the innovative mind’s production of valuable goods and services that benefit people’s lives. Bill Gates got rich by organizing the resources required to bring inexpensive productivity-enhancing software to the masses. We paid him willingly and often enthusiastically because Microsoft’s products amplified our own creative voices and made our lives easier. Singer does not consider that what motivated Gates was to create a smarter world and profit from it.

But Singer seems to think that the only way Gates has made the world better is by giving away his profits. And he notes that Gates is, as of 2006, still worth $53 billion and has a $100 million mansion with an expensive art collection. “Has Bill Gates done enough? More pointedly, you might ask: if he really believes that all lives have equal value, what is he doing living in such an expensive house and owning a Leonardo Codex?” Clearly Gates could do more and save even more lives. Instead, according to Singer, he is sitting on billions more that he acquired “ruthlessly” and not giving them back.

Singer grants that Gates has given away a much greater proportion of his wealth than many of us, and more than other billionaires. But then he says this: “Few people have set a personal example that would allow them to tell Gates that he has not given enough, but one who could is Zell Kravinsky.” Kravinsky, a successful real estate investor, gave up nearly all of his $45 million fortune and donated his kidney, even against the objections of his wife, who thought maybe one day one of his children might need one. Singer doesn’t say Gates hasn’t given enough, but he certainly implies that Gates hasn’t, given that by his standards, Kravinsky has.

Singer’s theory, after all, dictates that each of us “ought, morally, to be working full time to relieve great suffering.” Referring back to his drowning child analogy, Singer remarks: “[T]hose who stop when they have done their fair share . . . have let children drown when they could easily have saved them, and that is wrong.” Gates, unlike Kravinsky, has not sold his valuables or reduced himself to lower-middle-class comforts, and could still save millions more drowning children by doing so. By this logic, he really is doing something wrong.1

In light of Singer’s attitude about Gates, you may be stunned to learn that Bill Gates wrote the foreword to Singer’s book.

In his foreword, Gates emphasizes how many people were lifted out of poverty in the second half of the twentieth century (in 1960, 20% of the world’s children died before they were five; now only about 5% do).2 But the explanation he offers for this fact is striking: “It shows that aid does work and refutes the damaging myth that foreign aid does no good.”

Why does Bill Gates, of all people, ignore the obvious major factor other than foreign aid that accounts for the dramatic improvement in human welfare since Singer wrote his article, and which made possible the Western bounty that provided that aid?

Bill Gates ignores the major factor that lifted people out of poverty around the world: people like Bill Gates, in their capacity as businessmen, not as foreign aid donors.
In the late 1970s, China liberalized its economy. In the late 1980s, communism collapsed in Europe and around the world. Meanwhile, East Asian economies that had followed the American capitalist model were prospering. Reflecting on these events in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and spurred on by a financial crisis, India eliminated its archaic Fabian socialist-inspired system of controls and licenses known as the “Permit Raj,” eliminated trade barriers, and opened its economy to international investment. The result was rapid economic growth.3 Bangladesh soon followed suit.

India’s technology sector has been a noteworthy engine of growth in the region.4 By ending its state monopoly on long-distance telephone lines and by opening the country to foreign investment, the country soon saw the development of its own versions of Silicon Valley in Bangalore and Hyderabad. Texas Instruments was the first major international investor, in 1985.5 Bill Gates’s Microsoft opened its first tech campus there in 1990.

Whether out of false modesty or deference to Singer’s arguments, Bill Gates ignores the major factor that lifted people out of poverty around the world: people like Bill Gates, in their capacity as businessmen, not as foreign aid donors.

All over the world in the 1990s, but especially in South Asia, the repeal of state controls on the economy allowed not just Bill Gates himself, but thousands of smaller Bill Gateses to expand the range of their industrious, profit-seeking activity, creating a rising technological tide that doubtless raised many economic ships.6 It is hard to imagine that this could have failed to have a major impact on such factors as child mortality. That’s especially so because the Bill Gateses of the West, through the taxes extorted as a premium on top of the surplus they had already produced, are the ones who footed the bill for the foreign aid.7

Without the economic freedom to innovate and exchange value for value, without this “ruthless” creativity in the quest of profit, millions alive and thriving today would not have been. Yet Singer takes these results for granted, assuming that the wealth to be distributed is “acquired” by “whatever” means he dares not name. That these means are not forces of nature to be counted on is demonstrated eloquently by its absence under the weight of socialist controls, controls motivated by the same attitude that prompts Singer to regard Gates’s pursuit of wealth as morally suspect or irrelevant.

I am reminded of a passage from Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, which I recently reread as part of my involvement in the Atlas Project, a celebration of the 60th anniversary of the publication of the novel. Here’s the character Francisco d’Anconia asking a series of questions of his friend Hank Rearden, an industrialist as prodigious at making steel as Bill Gates was at engineering software:

All your life, you have heard yourself denounced, not for your faults, but for your greatest virtues. You have been hated, not for your mistakes, but for your achievements. You have been scorned for all those qualities of character which are your highest pride. You have been called selfish for the courage of acting on your own judgment and bearing sole responsibility for your own life. You have been called arrogant for your independent mind. You have been called cruel for your unyielding integrity. You have been called antisocial for the vision that made you venture upon undiscovered roads. You have been called ruthless for the strength and self-discipline of your drive to your purpose. You have been called greedy for the magnificence of your power to create wealth. You, who’ve expended an inconceivable flow of energy, have been called a parasite. You, who’ve created abundance where there had been nothing but wastelands and helpless, starving men before you, have been called a robber. You, who’ve kept them all alive, have been called an exploiter. You, the purest and most moral man among them, have been sneered at as a “vulgar materialist.” Have you stopped to ask them: by what right?—by what code?—by what standard? (Emphasis added.)

These are questions producers like Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and Jeff Bezos should ask of themselves. Francisco goes on to suggest that if it takes courage, independence, integrity, vision, and discipline to create material values, these are not just standards of production but the standards of a moral code, one hitherto unrecognized but crucially important to life. And yet, even as the Gateses of the world have lived by this code, they’ve been condemned for it, on grounds as flimsy as Singer’s “uncontroversial” principle and whimsical pond analogy. This raises more questions for the Gateses about the Singers of the world who issue these condemnations:

You have been willing to carry the load of an unearned punishment—and to let it grow the heavier the greater the virtues you practiced. But your virtues were those which keep men alive. Your own moral code—the one you lived by, but never stated, acknowledged or defended—was the code that preserves man’s existence. If you were punished for it, what was the nature of those who punished you? Yours was the code of life. What, then, is theirs? What standard of value lies at its root? What is its ultimate purpose? . . . By their own statement, it is they who need you and have nothing to offer you in return. By their own statement, you must support them because they cannot survive without you. Consider the obscenity of offering their impotence and their need—their need of you—as a justification for your torture.

Francisco does not tell us at this early stage in the novel what he thinks is the standard of the code opposing “the code of life.” It is revealed in a gradual unfolding of events through the rest of the novel. Still, you might be able to guess from context and from what he leaves to implication here what that motive is.8 Suffice it to say that the motive is not compassion.

Rand has been attacked for knocking down a straw man version of conventional morality. But Singer’s attitude toward Gates seems to fit Francisco’s description all too well. If I’m correct, the attitude is especially obscene when it comes from a philosopher and when it is applied to the innovators who have “created abundance where there had been nothing but wastelands and helpless, starving men” in the real world around us. We should be on the lookout for the same attitude toward other entrepreneurs today, and repudiate it.

Have a question? Send it to us.

Image credits: “Peter Singer” by Mal Vickers is in the public domain under CC0 1.0. “Bill Gates während der Münchner Sicherheitskonferenz 2017” by Mueller/MSC is licensed under CC BY 3.0 DE.

  1. At one point, Singer begrudgingly suggests that it’s better to praise people who give as much as Buffett and Gates than to criticize them. But notably, Singer hardly comes close to singling out Gates for praise. By his own admission, he does not want to criticize people if doing so will dissuade them from further giving. This means whatever praise he permits is done for its calculated effect, not because it is deserved.
  2. To Singer’s statistics, he might have added the context that while about 10 million died every year in 2006, nearly 16 million a year died when Singer wrote his essay in 1971. As of 2017, that rate is now under 6 million a year, a drop of more than a half since 1990.  The decline in child mortality in Bangladesh has been particularly precipitous. In 1970, roughly 234 in 1,000 children died before the age of 5. In 2010, the number had fallen to about 56 in 1,000, which is more than a 76% decline.
  3. See Daniel Yergin and Joseph Stanislaw, The Commanding Heights: The Battle for the World Economy (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002), 219–24.
  4. According to a report by the McKinsey Global Institute, the tech sector is expected to contribute between 20 and 30% of India’s GDP between 2012 and 2025, give 400 million people access to health care, improve agriculture yield between 15 and 60% using precision agriculture, and create 10 million high-tech jobs.
  5. Yergin and Stanislaw, The Commanding Heights, 226–28.
  6. Consider this passage from Stephen Pinker about technology’s impact on literal sailing ships: “Today about half the adults in the world own a smartphone, and there are as many subscriptions as people. In parts of the world without roads, landlines, postal service, newspapers, or banks, mobile phones are more than a way to share gossip and cat photos; they are a major generator of wealth. They allow people to transfer money, order supplies, track the weather and markets, find day labor, get advice on health and farming practices, even obtain a primary education. An analysis by the economist Robert Jensen subtitled ‘The Micro and Mackerel Economics of Information’ showed how South Indian small fishermen increased their income and lowered the local price of fish by using their mobile phones at sea to find the market which offered the best price that day, sparing them from having to unload their perishable catch on fish-glutted towns while other towns went fishless. In this way mobile phones are allowing hundreds of millions of small farmers and fishers to become the omniscient rational actors in the ideal frictionless markets of economics textbooks. According to one estimate, every cell phone adds $3,000 to the annual GDP of a developing country.” Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (New York: Penguin Publishing Group, 2018),  94-95).
  7. It’s also hard to imagine that there’s been an increase in foreign aid in proportion to India’s economic growth. There has surely been a proportionate increase in economic freedom and global economic activity.
  8. When Greg Salmieri and I hosted the Atlas Project this year, we did two broadcasts on the topic of the philosophic speech that answers Francisco’s question about the code of those who condemn Rearden. You can find the most detailed discussion of that answer in Episode 28.

Ben Bayer

Ben Bayer, Ph.D. in philosophy and formerly a professor, is a fellow at the Ayn Rand Institute.

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