Sometimes, billionaires just can’t win. The late Steve Jobs engaged in quiet philanthropy, and critics blasted the Apple co-founder for not doing enough. Mark Zuckerberg announced plans this month to give away 99 percent of his Facebook shares, and the same critics challenged his motives.
The grumbling — from people who worry too much about how others spend their money — reflects a flawed view of philanthropy. Here are three reasons critics should give Zuckerberg and Jobs thanks instead of “bah humbugs” this holiday season.
- They already gave
Some people view philanthropy as an obligation or form of penance for extracting profits from society. Such thinking assumes that billionaires have taken more than their fair share of limited resources, like bullies who push younger children out of the way so they can hoard candy from a Christmas piñata.
That’s the mindset of cronies who live on government favors. Productive rich such as Zuckerberg and Jobs think differently.
They understand that piñatas don’t just magically appear overhead. When the candy inside is released, they worry less about its distribution, and more about its creation in the first place — so they can figure out how to make more.
This was the mindset of an earlier pioneer, Milton Hershey. He was not like the kid on the ground scooping up piles of chocolate while supplies lasted. He built a factory that continues to fill millions of piñatas and stockings every year.
Zuckerberg and Jobs have filled other gaps. Their companies create social value through a range of core commercial activities, regardless of any philanthropy that might or might not occur later.
They can’t “give back” to society, per se, because they took nothing to begin with. When they engage in philanthropy, they are giving again. The distinction between giving and giving back is important.
- They multiply your choices
This does not mean the productive rich do everything on their own. Most are quick to acknowledge the help they receive from partners, investors, family, teachers, mentors and communities. But unlike cronies, the productive rich don’t steal from others or rely on force to accumulate wealth.
When they want other people’s money, they offer goods or services in exchange. When they want other people’s labor, they offer wages. Everything happens through voluntary trade.
If you don’t want what a company offers, you can walk away. Cronies might respond by lobbying the government for subsidies and other advantages, such as regulations that force unwanted transactions or stifle the competition.
The productive rich respond by giving you more choices.
Zuckerberg looked at existing products such as MySpace and LiveJournal and made something that people wanted even more. What he accomplished might seem like luck in hindsight, but even Google Plus — with the backing of a Silicon Valley giant — has failed to match Zuckerberg’s perception of market needs.
Other social media tools have emerged since 2004. You can pick and choose what you like or boycott them all.
In the realm of smartphones, I prefer Androids while my daughter prefers iPhones. Thanks to the productive rich, we both get what we want.
- They make you richer
This makes my family richer, and not just in material ways.
I saw one example on Thanksgiving morning, when I photographed my daughter and mother-in-law loading a pumpkin pie into the oven. Within five minutes of sharing the image on Facebook, my 85-year-old mother in India “liked” the status update.
Think about the holiday miracle: Three generations of women on two continents shared a moment of warmth. I would pay Facebook for such a service, but I get it from Zuckerberg for free.
Financial benefits also come through the power of enterprise and markets. For evidence, consider smartphone sales in my native India, where small business owners have discovered new ways to communicate with customers and suppliers. Another example comes from Kenya, where mobile money has transformed transactions.
Critics demonized Jobs as a Scrooge, but his products have done more to enrich the world than any amount of philanthropy he could have done. So give him and Zuckerberg a break. Or, better yet, thank them this holiday season for making the world better.
Rajshree Agarwal is the director of the Ed Snider Center for Enterprise and Markets at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business and a Cato adjunct scholar.