In the latest issue of First Things, London-based author Sam Kriss investigates the psychology of billionaires.
“I can imagine” being a millionaire, he writes, but to be a billionaire “stretches the imagination too far.” A thing beyond human scale, that sum of money exceeds our imaginative grasp. This inability to conceive of that degree of wealth corresponds, Kriss contends, to the inability to maintain one’s humanity with that degree of wealth.
Kriss uses the quintessential billionaire, Bill Gates, as his test subject. Though Gates is now number three on the Forbes 400 list (trailing Musk and Bezos), he remains “the canonical modern billionaire . . . the great exemplar of his kind.” Gates is also, Kriss argues, further along in the developmental process of the billionaire. Perhaps he is no longer the wealthiest man alive, but he has moved through the stages of amassing wealth, spending wealth, and—finally—engaging in philanthropy.
Until recently, Kriss reminds readers, Gates was not a man well-liked. Not only “distinctly malodorous” and “enchanted by all the things money can do,” Gates was also the subject of a major antitrust lawsuit because of Microsoft’s emergence as a monopoly. Being sued by the U.S. Department of Justice and twenty states does not usually make for good press: “Gates had never been particularly well-loved, but the case turned him into one of the most despised men on the planet.”
Our memories may be weak, but how is it that, just 24 years later, Gates is a model philanthropist admired for his unparalleled generosity?
Prior to the late-’90s lawsuit, Gates gave some money away through his foundation, but he could hardly have been considered “philanthropic.” Neither the scale nor the focus commanded that designation. But as the lawsuit began to fall apart and Gates’s image continued to decline, he quickly “announced that he would be donating one hundred million dollars to fund vaccines for children.”
And thus was born a philanthropist.
Kriss here makes the important distinction between “philanthropy” and “charity.” Charity, he notes, is “focused on some small human ends,” whereas philanthropy is focused on “an abstract humanity.” Of course, the key book to read on the distinction is Jeremy Beer’s The Philanthropic Revolution, but Kriss aptly discusses the deep and abiding problems in billionaire philanthropy, in which “actual people become pawns.”
So what happens when Gates becomes a philanthropist? You would think that Forbes’ highest-ranked philanthropist who has given away $50 billion would make great strides in helping the poor and the downtrodden. Alas, it appears that more harm than good has been done, though we scarcely hear of it.
From consolidating small farms in Africa into industrial-sized farms to making underperforming schools worse off, Gates’s philanthropy—like many philanthropic technocrats before him—endeavors to exceed the limits of human scale and ultimately harms those it purports to help. Not all are worse off for his largesse, though: “a disturbing amount of money,” Kriss writes, “that Gates gives away for poorer countries seems to end up in the hands of corporations and universities in richer ones.”
His philanthropy, it seems, succeeds in improving his image even as it fails in helping the less fortunate.
The real thrust of Kriss’s piece is not to bash Gates, but to reveal the corrupting influence of money (“resistance is futile”) and to argue that the harm done by billionaire philanthropy is not intentional. We plebes may be pawns in his plots, but those plots are hardly planned. From vaccines to family planning, Gates is not engineering an evil scheme any more than a virtuous one.
Why? Because the genesis of the billionaire philanthropist, argues Kriss, is not the emergence of someone concerned by the needs of others and committed to helping them. (That sounds more like charity.) Instead, “the super-rich turn to philanthropy because wealth inevitably burns through all mediating trinkets, and reverts to its primordial purpose, which is to control human minds and deeds.”
Having bought and enjoyed parties and yachts and jets and houses, what is next? Does one mature, suddenly, into Aristotle’s great-souled man, ready to live magnanimously for the good of others? No, because the money by now has overtaken the man. Following Marx, Kriss argues that at such a scale, the money now does the desiring for you and, like a virus, turns everything “into a machine for making more of itself.” Great concentrations of wealth, like great concentrations of power, desire first of all their own continued greatness.
Kriss may be a bit too bleak in describing the corrupting influence of wealth, but he certainly reminds us that one cannot serve both God and mammon. And how can you love your neighbor while serving mammon?