It may be coincidental that as the generations with access to one of 3,500 libraries funded by Scottish-American philanthropist Andrew Carnegie between 1883 and 1929 grew up and came to power that western democracy entered what may eventually be seen as its golden age. That parallel, though it would be easy to overstate it, seems more than arguable. At a time when education was still very much a privilege, utterly unaffordable for millions, Carnegie's books were one of many let-in-the-light catalysts that reshaped our world. Carnegie used his wealth to educate and foster real change even if that idea seems almost implausible in today's data-swamped, multi-media culture.
Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft and one of our world's richest men, is one of Carnegie's successors. This June, Forbes estimated his wealth at $110bn, a fortune that continues to grow despite the fact that he has given more than $50bn to charities since 1994. A decade ago Bill and Melinda Gates, working with billionaire Warren Buffett, founded Giving Pledge, a movement encouraging billionaires to give away most of their wealth while they were alive or as a bequest. The group includes more than 200 families or individuals from more than 20 countries.
Gates says he was inspired by Carnegie's dictum: “To die rich is to die disgraced.” Last week he acknowledged another person who inspired him — Chuck Feeney.
The Irish American Feeney realised his life-long ambition when the Atlantic Philanthropies, the foundation he secretly established in 1982 and transferred almost all of his wealth to, was formally closed as it had given away most of his billions. In those 38 years, Feeney gave away $8bn, $1.87bn to causes on this island. Feeney made his money through a duty-free shopping empire and has been making endowments to charities or universities across the world with the goal of “striving for zero … to give it all away”. Last week Feeney, 89, achieved his goal. As Feeney, who is in poor health, signed papers to dissolve the foundation, he said he was very satisfied with “completing this on my watch”. Bill Gates sent a video message to his “hero” in philanthropy to mark the achievement. From his small rented apartment in San Francisco, Feeney had a message for the super-rich, who may have pledged to give away part of their fortunes after they have died: “To those wondering about giving while living: try it, you’ll like it.”
In a world where wealth is ever-more concentrated, where opportunity ever-more limited, it would be churlish and wrong to challenge philanthropists like Feeney whose authenticity and generosity are beyond question. However, many philanthropists today seem symptoms of a system that no longer looks like the one built by those generations educated, in part at least, through Carnegie's libraries. They, or at least a decisive majority of them, saw wealth as a social tool rather than a personal end. They would not, for example, accept that the majority of nursing homes are run on a for-profit basis where poor pay has been a factor in the spread of C19. Neither would they accept the tax flexibility enjoyed by many multinational organisations which, in turn, enrich a tiny minority to the point that they can be philanthropists of a sort.
Our world is at a moment of real, darkening change, some of it driven by C19, more of it driven by growing inequality. A renewed commitment to democracy influenced by the spirit of generosity shown so freely by Feeney is still the best response.