Facebook founder named top philanthropist
Mark Zuckerberg made his mark on the US philanthropic tradition by becoming last year’s biggest charity donor. But would it be better to let the state decide how money from the rich is spent?
As the multibillionaire creator of the most popular online social network in the world, Mark Zuckerberg has plenty of reasons to feel pleased with himself. Now he has another: Forbes, the US business magazine, has revealed the 29-year-old was America’s top philanthropist last year, after donating Facebook shares worth $992m to California’s Silicon Valley Community Fund.
Zuckerberg’s generosity is in a long American tradition of disposing of wealth to good causes, charitable and educational, happily carried on by top technologists. While Zuckerberg gave more than Microsoft tycoon Bill Gates in 2013, so far The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has made a $28bn contribution to education, disease eradication and medical support for developing countries.
Yet even their generosity is dwarfed by the greatest example from America’s past: steel magnate Andrew Carnegie gave away 90% of his incredible $298bn fortune between 1900 and 1919. Carnegie established universities, schools, concert halls and nearly 3,000 public libraries.
Each year, America gives away two per cent of its GDP to charity — twice as much as Europe. So when and why did the Old World fall behind?
Medieval Europe had an effective philanthropist in its biggest landowner, the Roman Catholic Church, which provided alms for the poor. When the reformation stripped the Church of wealth and property, the charitable void was then partly filled by wealthy merchants and businessmen. This movement reached its peak in Victorian England: by 1860 almost 640 charitable institutions had been established in London alone. George Peabody, for example, provided much-needed clean, safe housing and set up a trust that runs urban estates to this day.
In the 20th century the philanthropic paths of Europe and the US diverged. Whereas the US has continued to define itself by rugged individualism free from state intervention, Europe increasingly puts social institutions and welfare in the hands of the state, paying for it through higher taxes.
Biting the hand that feeds
Some say governments understand the broader needs of society in a way that no wealthy individual can, so it is best that they gather funding to redistribute according to need. If the rich choose to give their money away at all, they may donate to things that matter only to them.
Nonsense! cry others. If wealthy individuals or their forebears have worked hard to make money, no one should tell them how much to donate or to what. A person should be free to hoard their gold, spend it on their children, or on the causes they favour. And if people feel they are free to use their money as they like, like so many Americans they will be more generous in the long run.
- Is it better to tax wealthy people and top earners or to let them donate as they wish?
- ‘Charitable giving by the poor is more impressive than by the rich.’ Do you agree?
- In groups of four, plan a charity for a cause meaningful to you. Make a list of things you need to think about to make it effective.
- Research Bill Gates’s ‘Giving Pledge’. Write a short essay explaining whether you think it is a good or bad idea.
Some People Say...
“There is no such thing as a purely selfless act.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- But I don’t want to give away my money!
- Some of your earnings and accumulated or inherited wealth will be taxed and go to the government anyway. But yes, it will be up to you what to do with the rest. Culture plays a big part in these decisions. In some nations it is normal to pass on money to children, in others it is frowned on: let the young make their own way in the world.
- Do philanthropists really give out of pure altruism?
- While a philanthropist may simply want to help others, they may also want to enjoy the recognition involved or the possibility of having a building named after them. More controversially, in the US, the wealthy receive tax breaks for their acts of charity. Investor Warren Buffet was confused to find that when he tried to give $2m, the government gave him $2m back.
- Essentially relief for the poor, usually in the form of food or clothing. But the term ‘alms’ denotes a religious significance: Medieval Catholics believed that giving to others is symbolic of the way Christ ‘gave himself’ to mankind through his sacrifice on the cross, and alms are important in other religions too.
- In the 15th and 16th centuries, parts of northern Europe rejected the Catholic Church to establish various branches of Protestantism. This weakened the Catholicism’s power, especially in England. In 1540, land belonging to Catholic monasteries was seized by the English crown, and two thirds of it was sold to fund Tudor wars.
- Freedom from government interference is one of the founding principles of the United States. America fought and gained independence from Britain in 1776 partly so it could be free from taxation imposed by an alien, absent power. In Europe, by contrast, the idea of the state as the guarantor of fairness for all, and an active provider, is much more pervasive.