Through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, billionaire Bill Gates has donated millions of dollars to such causes as improving education, eradicating malaria, and upgrading water systems around the world. Through the Open Society Foundation, billionaire George Soros has disbursed vast sums to promote democracy and human rights. These guys are part of the problem.
Don't get me wrong: I think clean water and human rights are good things--especially when it comes to making soup. But as Nicholas Confessore points out in today's Times, such aggressive philanthropy often finds itself at odds with democratic principles and the greater good. While some would argue that any private support for public initiatives is welcome in these economically difficult times, such largesse often provides ammunition for conservative arguments about the rationale for shrinking government--"starving the beast," in their parlance: "See, government doesn't need to be involved: Private citizens can do a fine job of providing for society's well-being."
But even if private charity could conceivably fund public services at a level adequate for society's needs (it can't), the relinquishment of such services to the private sector would represent an unacceptable abdication of government responsibilities. While everybody may support the idea of improving education, for example, not everybody agrees that Bill Gates' approach (which places particular emphasis on the role of charter schools) is the best way to get there. But in a privately funded system, the citizens don't have a choice about the way the money is used: They can take it or leave it, and "leaving it" is not a realistic option.
Certainly, Gates and Soros and other public-spirited tycoons have every right to use their money the way they see fit. As citizens, we can applaud their charitable impulses and appreciate their desire to "give back" to the society that has enabled them to amass their great fortunes. But we must also remember that we cannot count on their support to meet all of society's varied needs. The best way for the 1% to give back is to support (as, to their credit, people like Gates and Warren Buffett do) progressive taxation to meet the needs of the general public.