David Kelley
David Kelley

Is It Nobler to Give Than to Create?

Why is Ted Turner apologising for wealth?

When he pledged last fall to donate $1 billion to United Nations programs, he called on other wealthy people to follow his lead. "I'm putting every rich person in the world on notice that they're gonna be hearing from me about giving more money away." He has chided Bill Gates and Warren Buffett publicly for not giving enough.

For Turner, this is not merely a pet hobby. Like many successful entrepreneurs before him, Turner claims the moral high ground in his call for philanthropy. "The highest thing you can do is to help others," he told John Stossel, in an interview for a recent ABC News Special.

A century ago, Andrew Carnegie voiced the same idea. "How is the struggle for dollars," he asked, "to be lifted from the sordid atmosphere surrounding business and made a noble career?... The only noble use of surplus wealth is this: that it be regarded as a sacred trust, to be administered by its possessor for the highest good of the people." Carnegie gave away the equivalent, in today's dollars, of $5b (some 70% of his net worth) as did John D. Rockefeller.

In effect, successful producers have bought the idea that the manner in which they acquired their wealth is amoral, if not immoral, and have looked to philanthropy as a way of doing penance. Why?

Is it the injunction we all heard as children: 'tis nobler to give than to receive? But those are not the relevant alternatives. Carnegie and Rockefeller, like Turner, Gates, Buffett and their peers today, did not take their wealth from some pre-existing pot, leaving less for others in a zero-sum game. They created wealth, and the best of them created wealth on a scale far beyond anything they kept as a personal return.

Between the 1860s and the 1890s, for example, Rockefeller's genius for production drove the price of kerosene from $1 per gallon to 10 cents, and the real wages of his workers doubled. He made it possible, for the first time in history, for most working and middle class people to have light in the evenings for reading.

Capitalists today are no less creative. When Turner started the Cable News Network in 1980, most "experts" in the business considered it hare-brained to challenge the three broadcast networks, and to do it with an untried technology to which most people still had no access. By the time it was acquired by Time Warner in 1996, for more than $6 billion, CNN was a financial success. And along the way Turner changed the shape of news.

As Time Magazine noted in making him its 1991 Man of the Year, after CNN's stunning coverage of the Gulf War: "The very definition of news was rewritten — from something that has happened to something that is happening at the very moment you are hearing of it. A war involving the fiercest air bombardment in history unfolded in real time — before the cameras... These shots heard, and seen, around the world appeared under the aegis of the first global TV news company, Cable News Network."

From steel girders, to electricity, to automobiles, to personal computers and cable television, the business visionaries who pioneered these products have created jobs, increased the safety and comfort of everyday life, raised standards of living by many multiples, saved lives, and created vast wealth. The profits they won were earned — by the value they created, by the risks they took, by the vision, courage, and commitment they possessed. Yet theirs have been profits without honour.

There is nothing wrong with philanthropy, and much that is right. It has built libraries and hospitals, relieved poverty, nurtured the arts, financed the growth of knowledge. But we don't need philanthropy to sanctify the production — or the producers — who make it possible.

"Men have been taught," Ayn Rand wrote in The Fountainhead, her novel celebrating creators, "that the highest virtue is not to achieve, but to give. Yet one cannot give that which has not been created."

There is something terribly wrong with our standards of moral honour when even business creators, those who know better than anyone else what it takes to create wealth, are willing to demean themselves by suggesting that their money needs laundering.

If Ted Turner wants to give his money away, that's fine. It's his money. If he wants to raise money for the causes he believes in, that's fine, too. But giving away his money is easy compared with the heroic effort it took to make it. And nothing his philanthropy will accomplish will compare with the value he has created as a media entrepreneur.

Perhaps it is nobler to give than to receive. But in my book it's nobler still to create.

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