Americans have a few national quirks, the patriotic Scrapbook is willing to concede, and one of them is the assumption that people who have made great piles of money in life—Andrew Carnegie, Henry Ford, H. Ross Perot, Steve Jobs, Warren Buffett—have something worthwhile to say on other subjects. The latest example of this common misapprehension comes from the lips of billionaire industrialist Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft.
In a recent interview with the Financial Times, Mr. Gates expressed an interesting philosophy of philanthropy:
Quoting from an argument advanced by moral philosopher Peter Singer, for instance, he questions why anyone would donate money to build a new wing for a museum rather than spending it on preventing illnesses that can lead to blindness. “The moral equivalent is, we’re going to take one percent of the people who visit this [museum] and blind them,” he says.
In truth, of course, The Scrapbook questions why anyone would take moral guidance from “moral philosopher” Peter Singer, a well-known proponent of mass euthanasia. But we digress. If we read him correctly, Bill Gates seems to believe that there is some direct moral correlation between the human condition—including the fact that people suffer in the world—and the expression of human genius. Or put another way: Every penny spent to erect a cathedral, or compose a symphony, or “build a new wing for a museum,” is one less penny for people who suffer from “illnesses that can lead to blindness.”
Bill Gates, of course, is entitled to his opinion, although The Scrapbook wouldn’t wish to live in some utopia without museums, archives, libraries, concert halls, equestrian statues, or ecclesiastical structures. Nor do we accept his notion of moral equivalence. Indeed, there may be people—well, one, anyway—whose hearts are gladdened not by the Taj Mahal, or a Hopper painting, or Chopin nocturne, but the sight of Microsoft Corporation headquarters in Redmond, Washington.
Yet it seems evident, to The Scrapbook at least, that if resources were withheld from symbols of human achievement (distinguished buildings, great museums, well-stocked libraries) unless and until the traditional human scourges (poverty, disease, tyranny) were eradicated, we would inhabit a sterile, oppressive, dystopian world.
A world, by the way, very much unlike the comfortable principality that Bill Gates’s billions have bought him, Mrs. Gates, and their three children: a house worth well in excess of $125 million, with a thousand-square-foot dining room, a 60-foot swimming pool with underwater music system, and a private library featuring its own curator, the Codex Leicester—and most recently, the acquisition of a volume of Leonardo da Vinci manuscripts (price: $30.8 million). The Scrapbook cannot imagine how many people went blind to buy that one.