Entrepreneurs Can Make a Greater Contribution to Society Through Business Than Charity
From today's WSJ editorial page "Gates and Buffett Take the Pledge" by Kimberly Dennis:
"Bill Gates and Warren Buffett announced this month that 40 of America's richest people have agreed to sign a "Giving Pledge" to donate at least half of their wealth to charity. With a collective net worth said to total $230 billion, that promise translates to at least $115 billion. 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.
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.
Even if Mr. Gates makes progress in achieving his ambitious philanthropic objectives—eradicating disease, reducing global poverty, and improving educational quality—these accomplishments are unlikely to match what he achieved by giving us the amazing capability we literally have at our fingertips to access and spread information. The very doctors and scientists who may develop cures for diseases like malaria will rely on the tools Microsoft supplies to conduct their research. Had Mr. Gates decided to step down from his company and turn to philanthropy sooner than he did, they might have fewer such tools.
Let's hope the philanthropy of those who do sign the Giving Pledge achieves great things. But let's not fool ourselves into thinking that businessmen are likely to achieve more by giving their money away than they have by making it in the first place."
From the NBER paper "Schumpeterian Profits in the American Economy: Theory and Measurement" by William Norhaus:
"The present study examines the importance of Schumpeterian profits in the United States economy. Schumpeterian profits are defined as those profits that arise when firms are able to appropriate the returns from innovative activity. We first show the underlying equations for Schumpeterian profits and then estimate the value of these profits for the non-farm business economy.
We conclude that only a minuscule fraction of the social returns from technological advances over the 1948-2001 period was captured by producers, indicating that most of the benefits of technological change are passed on to consumers rather than captured by producers. For the entire postwar period and for the nonfarm business sector, innovators are able to capture about 2.2% of the total surplus from innovation."
MP: In other words, it’s very likely that the total value created for society by Bill Gates’ innovative activities, including starting Microsoft, far exceeds his own personal wealth, so he has already given back billions of dollars worth of value to society, and should feel no need to give anything more back. In fact, a stronger case could be made that consumers have exploited Bill Gates, than the opposite. If the Nordhaus analysis accurately applies to Bill Gates, almost 98% of the social returns from the value of Microsoft products have already been captured by consumers around the world, which greatly exceeds the personal fortune of Bill Gates. And the contribution to society from Bill Gates’ capitalist activities will likely far exceed the contribution to society of his charitable giving.