ALTRUISM OR EGOISM?
BY PETE CREAN
It now appears to be quite commonplace on social media to see content shared widely praising the very richest people in the world for their charitable work, donations and so forth. Of course, acts of selflessness should always be acknowledged and encouraged, but if we scratch beneath the surface of mega-rich philanthropy there lies a lot to be questioned.
At first, when dealing with this topic it makes more sense to look at the bigger picture rather than focusing on individuals. The richest 1% now own half of the world’s wealth, this absurd reality has to a certain extent been completely normalised (1).
So in the knowledge that there is ever growing inequality, perhaps we could be at least somewhat sympathetic to those billionaires amending this in some way. But are we dealing with altruism or egoism? Ironically, perhaps the most damming analysis has come from the son of Warren Buffet, the second richest person on the planet (2), Peter Buffet;
‘As more lives and communities are destroyed by the system that creates vast amounts of wealth for the few, the more heroic it sounds to “give back.” It’s what I would call “conscience laundering” — feeling better about accumulating more than any one person could possibly need to live on by sprinkling a little around as an act of charity.’ (3)
It is clear here that he believes grandiose acts of charity do more to perpetuate this unjust system rather than helping as intended. It’s a perspective on the topic that could be viewed as overly cynical. However when considered alongside the tax arrangements of much of the super-rich it makes perfect sense. Mark Zuckerburg being an example, he very publicly pledged to give away 99% of his shares in Facebook over his life, equating to £30 billion at the time, (4). Of course very commendable, as he is not required to do so. However the tax record of Facebook in the UK, (5), certainly raises questions. The company has consistently in the past avoided paying their UK corporation tax, by using complex schemes to shelter its earnings, (6,7). Why does Mark Zukerburg feel he knows how to spend this money better than the UK government? Is his philanthropy just fending off resentment without relinquishing control?
Philanthropy is rarely done in anonymity, like charitable donations from the average person so often are. The philanthropists name is more often than not at the forefront, The Bill & Melina Gates Foundation for example. This perhaps indicates a yearning for fresh accolades, after monetary accumulation has become mundane.
This is of course to some extent speculation; there are numerous motivations for philanthropy. It might be guilt, fear or genuine desire to help. This article seeks not to demonise all charity from the rich. It rather seeks to question, whether society should be grateful, or accept it is entitled to receive something back.