Feb 23, 2022
Bill Gates has long cultivated a reputation as the Good Billionaire, giving away vast sums of money toward global health and education initiatives through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. For many years, the Gates Foundation was rarely criticized at all in the mainstream press, its work considered unambiguously good. The shine has come off Gates a bit recently, thanks to the negative publicity surrounding both his divorce and his staunch defense of corporate intellectual property rights over vaccines during the pandemic.
Prof. Linsey McGoey of the University of Essex was one of the earliest major critics of the Gates Foundation's work, and her 2015 book No Such Thing As A Free Gift: The Gates Foundation and the Price of Philanthropy is a stinging criticism of "philanthrocapitalism." McGoey's book goes through the history of business tycoons trying to save the world through charity, beginning with Andrew Carnegie in the 19th century. McGoey explains clearly why charitable giving, though it may look like an unambiguous positive, has a number of major downsides including:
- The lack of democratic accountability for what private foundations choose to fund (see the Gates foundation's funding of school privatization schemes)
- The refusal to consider solutions that threaten the sources of the foundation's wealth or call into question the broader hierarchy of wealth and power
- The funding of things that look good on paper and flatter the billionaire donor but aren't actually what people in need are asking for
These criticisms have been made by the left since the time of Oscar Wilde's "The Soul of Man Under Socialism," but McGoey brings them up to date by showing clearly how even an organization like the Gates Foundation, that presents itself as having a benign commitment to health and education, is actually insidious.
In this conversation, Prof. McGoey and Current Affairs editor in chief Nathan J. Robinson discuss the career of Gates, the problems with billionaire charity, and the reasons philanthrocapitalists often escape serious criticism. They also discuss Prof. McGoey's work in the field of "ignorance studies." In The Unknowers: How Strategic Ignorance Rules The World, Prof. McGoey studies the way institutions carefully exclude ideologically inconvenient information, creating a kind of useful ignorance.
"Charity creates a multitude of sins." — Oscar Wilde, "The Soul of Man Under Socialism"