The new age of charity

When the world’s second-richest man gives most of his money to the world’s richest man we do well to count our spoons. Warren Buffett has given $31 billion to Bill Gates to add to his $29 billion foundation. What’s going on? The 19th century was the age of capitalism, the 20th of socialism. The 21st is to be the age of charity, or so we are given to hope. But as Margaret Thatcher said in her sermon on the Good Samaritan, “Remember, he had to earn his money first.” Greed is back, but it is greed with acquired nobility.

Truly large fortunes are fiendishly difficult to dispose of. Men have bought property, built mansions, blown everything on casinos, horses and women. They have given money to their children to do likewise. Peerages, yachts, football teams, opera houses, ranches in Latin America have come and gone. Even the wildest imagination is exhausted.

On Monday at the New York Sheraton Buffett joined Bill and Melinda Gates to reveal what they might do with their fortune. The Gates team are to alleviate world poverty and disease, and improve access to technology. “Millions around the world are facing health problems,” revealed Buffett, while Mrs Gates added that malaria medicines “are hard to take if people have insufficient food to swallow”.

When asked why they were not giving their estimated $3 billion a year to government for state aid, Buffett treated the question as absurd: “Bill and Melinda will do a better job than

the federal treasury.” He declared that philanthropists “should seek out talent to distribute their money just as they sought out talent to acquire it”. Turner, George Soros

and Sandy Weill of Citigroup take a similar approach.

Such private giving is still insignificant compared with what governments do. Next year Britain’s international aid will be twice as much as that of the new Gates foundation. But in the 19th century few would have predicted that the state would supplant private charity. The movement from voluntary to compulsory welfare began with a shift in moral imagination. I see no reason why that shift should not be reversed. In Britain it is still far off. The trend under Tories and Labour to discredit the “public-service ethos” has been marked. In the mouths of ministers, public equals bad, private equals good is axiomatic.

The British public sector has lost the moral supremacy it enjoyed under socialism in the 20th century. This is not because people have retreated from welfare or social action but because government has come to seem an introverted monopolist, unworthy of the trust once placed in it. Power has drifted away from contact with people, and public service has been contracted out to the private sector.

Any distressed world city these days is occupied by the pampered expatriates of the UN, IMF, World Bank and EU, inflating rents, filling restaurants and crowding streets with Land Cruisers. They have subsidised too many dictators and undermined too many econo-mies for comfort. As their moral standing dwindles in the wreckage of Africa and the Middle East, they will be supplanted by the ad hoc charity of the private sector.

In Buffett’s words, only a fool gives his money to a treasury. What would once have seemed a slander now seems a platitude. Whether such people will run a better planet, who knows? But they clearly mean to try. — The Guardian