I watched a portion of the 60 Minutes interview with Bill Gates the other day. Anderson Cooper did the interview. As I watched, a thought struck me: it’s easy to be a philanthropist with many billions of dollars. Add to that, people have commented that he can’t give his fortune away fast enough. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t personally dislike Mr. Gates. He’s talking about issues that are relevant to modern society. But why does he get the bully pulpit, the soft interviews, and the attention of the world?
Short answer: because that’s how people respond to power.
I’ve broadly talked about governmental power, social power, religious power, and economic power from time to time. Mr. Gates is a great example of economic power. Regardless of the source, people respond to that power. The reasons are probably quite diverse. Maybe it’s because the powerful have something that others want. Or maybe they just like being around it. Or maybe they’re jealous.
It doesn’t matter, because it’s kind of created this myth surrounding the powerful. They deserve that power. For example, if a person wins an election, that person deserves the political and legal powers in office. If a person earns a giant sum of money (and can keep it), that person deserves the privileges of wealth. If a person is highly esteemed in some kind of social role, that person deserves any perks that might come with it.
In this context, power is something that’s desirable. It can only benefit a person. Power is aspirational. To some, it might even be a sign of virtue.
Which brings me back to Mr. Gates.
The reason why I take his good qualities with a grain of salt is that his power came from a process that promotes income inequality. Once again, I don’t doubt Mr. Gates’s good intentions. But he’s in his position to help people solely because he was able to take their money. He can’t give it away fast enough in part because of how economic distribution favors someone in his position.
In a sense, he’s giving away money that shouldn’t have belonged to him in the first place. I’m old enough to remember the increasing prices on Windows products, the deals with companies to use Microsoft products, the antitrust lawsuits in the early 2000’s. All of these helped Mr. Gates get his wealth to where it is now.
How he earned his money has nothing to do with whether he deserves it or not. Money doesn’t go to the deserving; it goes to people who can manipulate a series of social and legal hurdles to get it. Political power doesn’t go to the deserving; it goes to people who can manipulate social and legal hurdles to get it. And so on.
People don’t deserve power.
Many of the concerns Mr. Gates raised in his interview and elsewhere are deserving of attention on their own merits. His personal wealth puts him in a position to promote meaningful progress on those issues. But the two realities do not necessarily relate to each other.
Yes, people might satisfy an arbitrary set of requirements to make law or tell others how to live their lives. This doesn’t always make them the best person in those positions. It just means they’ve gone through a process that people hope brings out a minimum quantity of success.
To put this all in perspective, think about the last U.S. President (and maybe other leaders currently like him). He managed to surmount all obstacles in 2016. Did he deserve the power he wielded? I don’t think he did.
But he got to wield it whether he deserved it or not.