Thursday, June 29, 2006

Billions for boondoggles, but not a cent for reason

"Don't bother to examine a folly -- ask only what it accomplishes."

So said Ellsworth Toohey to Peter Keating near the end of Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead in a speech in which he explains the method of his plan to rule the world.

I have commented in the past on the folly of Bill Gates spending his billions on fighting various "ills" without bothering to examine their causes. Now Warren Buffett will donate $37 billion to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, or about 85 percent of his estimated worth of $44 billion. Bill Gates himself is worth an estimated $50 billion.

"Now worth $30 billion, the Gates foundation is one of the world's richest philanthropic organizations," says a Reuters article. "It has committed millions to fighting diseases such as malaria and tuberculosis in developing countries, and to education and library technology in the United States."

It is not just the wasted billions that causes the mind to reel. It is also, among other things, the utter futility of the gestures. "Developing countries"? Read "Third World" backwaters that will never develop beyond what they are now: incubators of poverty, starvation, disease, death and tyranny. Their various inhabitants and rulers are as clueless about the political and economic causes of malaria, tuberculosis and poverty as are apparently Gates and Buffett, who have far less excuse for their ignorance.

What is astonishing is that neither Gates nor Buffett grasps the nature of the origin of his wealth, nor apparently has ever bothered to ask himself why there is a difference between the American standard of living and its wealth and the standards of living and the degrees of destitution that are responsible for the diseases they wish to combat and cure. Or, if they have sensed or identified the difference (and given their public statements, there is no evidence they place any importance on the difference), their altruistic premises trump any distinction.

The folly must be examined in order to understand what will and will not be accomplished by pouring billions of dollars into the bottomless pits of the needy around the globe, and by perpetuating the ever-deepening sinkholes of American public education.

Let us first note that charities produce nothing. They are eminently non-productive. The United States is rich because it is productive, because so much created wealth was invested in other productive enterprises, and only a fraction of the produced wealth ever donated to charities. (And we will leave aside for the moment the incalculable wealth confiscated by the U.S., state and other governments, also non-productive entities, dedicated to such boondoggles as Social Security and rebuilding New Orleans.) Perhaps the fortunes Gates will invest in research to cure malaria (God forbid he advocate the application of DDT) and tuberculosis will actually produce the hoped for cures. Fine. That will leave the cured to endure poverty, starvation and other diseases, not to mention the turmoil and anarchy and tyrannical brutality of the countries in which malaria and tuberculosis might be checked.

Let us also note that, in regards to the wealth Gates will donate to the public education system, the students who will be the immediate or direct beneficiaries of that money, for as long as they are hostages of that system, will not emerge brighter students or super achievers. By all the direct evidence of plummeting test scores and the inability of increasing numbers of students and young adults to think, read, do simple math, and write, learning how to use technology or some souped-up library or data system will not turn them into independent individuals capable of emulating Gates's business success.

What Gates overlooks or is oblivious to is that the education system is committed to turning young people into selfless individuals who defer to arbitrary authority and regard themselves as mere cogs in society, some more adept or skillful than others, tolerated as long as they remain obedient ciphers.

And for as long as Gates and Buffett are lauded as role models of "responsible citizens" and exemplars of sacrifice and "giving back," any given student will be discouraged from developing a personal, selfish ambition, and never encouraged to ask the question: Give back what, and to whom? This is a more potent consequence of their actions, more potent than any amount of money they may donate. Perhaps the most perilous thing Gates's folly will accomplish is the further "legitimization" of selflessness as a "noble" virtue.

These students will end up as shortsighted or blind as Gates and Buffett must be in any realm beyond their businesses, and the realm in which they are most blind is the moral foundation of capitalism and freedom. By announcing their intention to squander their wealth in a prolonged orgy of altruism, they betray the very vestiges of the morality that allowed them to succeed in their businesses. Obviously, throughout their entire careers, Gates and Buffett accepted the idea that greed and personal ambition were either evil or irrelevant. It was "practical" to make a profit, but not moral. Ideas? Principles? Free minds? Championing capitalism? No. Apparently, bridge games are the limit of their intellectual efforts.

Their altruist campaign to "do good" by "giving back" is evidence of what could be called moral autism. Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary defines autism as an "absorption in phantasy to the exclusion of reality." The Oxford Concise Dictionary adds a term that is directly related to altruism in its definition of autism: "Morbid absorption in fantasy," the term morbid medically indicative of an unhealthy disease combined, in Gates's case, with an obsession to cure the ills of the world. And altruism is the progenitor of myriad fantasies. It requires leaving reason behind and focusing on ridding the world of an "ill" with no reference to reality.

I am not certain that experts have determined whether clinically defined autism is a consequence of physiological disorders or psychological ones, or a combination of them. But I am certain that moral autism is a consequence of a profound philosophical disorder: the automatic suspension of reason where moral values are in question and a departure from reality, a condition required by altruism.

A medically certified autistic person may not have any control over his condition, but the moral autism of Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and countless individuals, is a matter of choice. If the mark of autism is a "disconnect" from reality in favor of a fantasy in which reason is neither applicable nor welcome, then Gates and Buffett are morally autistic. For them, there is no rational causal relationship between reality and morality. They can be brilliant in business, but become congenital idiots in the realm of morality.

Another observation is that all those who are praising Gates and Buffett are gloating in self-righteous vindication of the altruism they have been promoting all their lives and careers, happy that such enormous wealth will be consumed in altruist programs. What is obscene about this event is the glib sanctimony of Gates and Buffett, and the smug sanctimony of those who approve of the give-away.

It would be interesting to hear the reception these same altruists -- in the news media, in universities, by politicians, in churches -- would give Gates and Buffett if these men announced instead that they planned to devote their billions to educating Americans on the values of reason, capitalism, and liberty, and to rediscovering the America that the Founders intended this country to be -- a land of the free, not a home of the selfless.

Our nation was young when Charles Pinckney, an American minister to Republican France, replied to an official French request for graft, "Millions for defense, but not a cent for tribute." Altruism has so warped the character of our nation that now the reply is: "Billions for boondoggles, but not a cent for reason."

Moral autism is a disease that can only be combated and cured by advocating reason and capitalism. A nation that treats it as a superlative normal condition will not know why it is perishing.

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