Friday, June 29, 2007

He's a PC

There has been a lot of action and reaction to Bill Gate’s commencement address at Harvard. Economist Robert Barro followed with a critical comment in the Wall Street Journal, and today’s journal has some follow up letters generally supporting Barro’s position. As an example, one letter says “Mr. Gates has nothing he needs to ‘give back’ because he has taken nothing".

Now as anyone who has followed this blog knows I never shy away from talking about how “fairness” arguments often misunderstand the wealth-creating properties of the marketplace. I am even Schumpeterian enough (as was today's first letter writer, Fred L. Smith of the Competitive Enterprise Institute) to appreciate that large improvements in the lives of people around the world often comes from firms labeled as big bad “monopolists” by others. However, I wanted to check Mr. Gates original words to see how I felt. I have now read his address, and I have come to the conclusion that the criticisms seem to me to be off track, especially as I as a Christian read Mr. Gates remarks (disclosure: I have no idea as to Mr. Gates religious views, and he did not make any explicitly religious arguments in his address).

I see several important ideas in Mr. Gates’ address. Some I will save for another post at a future time, but here two.

First, I do not believe that Mr. Gates comes anywhere close either to apologizing for his wealth or to adopting a “they are poor because I am rich” view of markets. Indeed, he wants to expand the reach of market forces: “We can make market forces work better for the poor if we can develop a more creative capitalism – if we can stretch the reach of market forces so that more people can make a profit, or at least make a living, serving people who are suffering from the worst inequities.” What Mr. Gates also says is “When you consider what those of us here in this Yard have been given – in talent, privilege, and opportunity – there is almost no limit to what the world has a right to expect from us.” This is completely consistent with a Christian concept that no one is a self-made man or woman. All of our gifts (our families, our talents and skills, those teachers and bosses and friends who have helped us and encouraged us along the way) are gifts from God. Further, we are required to love our neighbors as ourselves, with specific attention paid to vulnerable people such as orphans, the sick, and prisoners. Did Jesus put any limits on what was expected from those of privileged backgrounds? This question leads us to Mr. Gates second point.

Mr. Gates recounts the advice of his mother who said, “"From those to whom much is given, much is expected." In addition to being the same advice Uncle Ben gave to Peter Parker, it is also an almost exact re-telling of Jesus’ words in Luke 12: 48, “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded.”

No comments: