Bill Gates recently shocked the world by claiming that his accomplishments may have been good for him and Microsoft shareholders, but not the wider society. The richest man in the world, who was collecting an honorary degree from Harvard University suggested that with a personal fortune of about $90 billion (including what he has transferred to his foundation), it was time he gave something back to society. Mr Bill Gates’ plan is to use the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to reduce world poverty.
Could Gates be succumbing to a guilt trip? Could he be falling for the fallacy that when somebody gains, another one loses? The late Julius Nyerere, former Tanzanian president, once termed capitalist Kenya as a ‘man-eat-man’ society. Kenya in turn answered that socialist Tanzania is a ‘man –eat-nothing’ society. Could Gates be feeling that all along he has been on the ‘man-eat-man’ mission?
Gates ought not to drive on a guilt lane. He did not steal that money. He made a product that made people willingly give him money. He didn’t coerce anyone, like the Marcos regime did, making Imelda to amass thousands of pairs of shoes. He didn’t force people as governments do to advance their programs. Gates entices and persuades people by manufacturing things that make people willing to give him money. In the process, he creates new ways of doing things, gives rise to thousands of jobs and saves time that is then invested in other productive activities.
“I find this perspective hard to understand,” says Robert Barro, Economics Professor at Harvard University and Senior Fellow at Hoover Institution. “Microsoft has been a boon for society and the value of its software greatly exceeds the likely value of Mr. Gate’s philanthropic efforts.”
Gates has demonstrated that the growth of world prosperity is not a ‘miracle’ or sheer luck. Growth comes when people begin to think along new lines and work hard to bring their ideas to fruition in an environment that encourages ideas, work, and does not put obstacles on their way. An environment that permits people to explore their way ahead, own property, invest for the long term, conclude private arrangements and trade with others will certainly ignite prosperity.
The only logical way of getting rich is by giving people what they want, something that they will pay for of their own free will. Economics is not a zero sum game. The bigger a person’s income in market economy, the more that person has done to offer people what they want. Those who want to earn good wages have to figure out parts of the economy where they can better cater for peoples’ demands.
Detailed regulations specifying the uses people can make of their property, excessive taxation, making it difficult to start a business by imposing numerous licenses, permits, restrictive rules on pricing and business transactions will prevent markets from working. This gives power to bureaucrats, wastes time and leads to corruption.
“Just imagine if Gate’s 90 billion dollars were used to promote market reforms in Africa. The amount of wealth created would be enormous. Here is a great man opting to throw money into the bottomless pit of welfare,” laments Adekunle from Nigeria.
Gates is free to do what he wishes with his $ 90 billion. The aid path has however been trodden before and stifled rather than enhanced development. What Gates should teach the world is how self interest and ‘greed’ but not ‘love’ are a motivation that leads to prosperity. If African nations learn this secret, Kenyans, for example, will not be complaining that the buying of the –Hummer car by Raila Odinga has left Kenyans poorer. Wealth is not fixed, but constantly being created by a country’s entrepreneurs. Incentives should thus be removed from politics and aid, to make people resort to meeting Africa’s needs through business.
By Josephat Juma
Mr. Juma is an African Executive Writer
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