August 21, 2010


Successful entrepreneurs-turned-philanthropists typically say they feel a responsibility to “give back” to society. But “giving back” implies they have taken something. What, exactly, have they taken? Yes, they have amassed great sums of wealth. But that wealth is the reward they have earned for investing their time and talent in creating products and services that others value. They haven’t taken from society, but rather enriched us in ways that were previously unimaginable. …

While businesses may do more for the public good than they’re given credit for, philanthropies may do less. Think about it for a moment: Can you point to a single charitable accomplishment that has been as transformative as, say, the cell phone or the birth-control pill? To the contrary, the literature on philanthropy is riddled with examples of failure, including examples where philanthropic efforts have actually left intended beneficiaries worse off.

I should note that there’s plenty of corruption in the nonprofit world, too, but with far less scrutiny than for-profit businesses receive.

UPDATE: Reader Scot Echols writes:

I really appreciated your post on the WSJ article on capitalism this morning, but it left out what I think is really the central benefit of capitalism. The enemies of capitalism seem to be focused on the evil of “taking” from others through profits. They are completely missing the point. Capitalism is about creating value. Value is created when someone does something for someone else better, faster, or cheaper than they can do it themselves.

I was at the doctor’s office yesterday for a sore throat, and he was on a tirade about how we need communism or a benevolent dictator to solve all of societies problems. So I went there. I explained to him that I could get over my sore throat myself with a couple of weeks of gargling hot salt water and eating garlic and cayenne pepper, OR I could come pay him $80 for an office visit and $5 for some generic antibiotics, and feel a lot better in a couple of days. THAT is capitalism. He did in 20 minutes and for $85 what it would have taken me two weeks and probably a couple of missed days of my own productivity to do. He CREATED value out of nothing by using his knowledge, skills, and ability to provide value to me. That in turn created wealth for him, and is the reason he deserves to drive a nicer car and live in a nicer home than his receptionist.

He had no response to that.

I’d still find another doctor.

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