Billionaires’ giving simply irritates me

Billionaires’ giving simply irritates me 


Laurence Demarco

Regeneration & Renewal




My reaction to Bill Gates and Warren Buffet joining up to distribute their billions has been one of irritation. I want to live in a society where the ratio between the top and bottom incomes is such that no one can accumulate billions.


Worldwide research shows that the most unequal societies are also the most dysfunctional and unhappy. But in the West we are in thrall of wealth. Our grovelling gets worse. None of our leaders mention inequality.


Gates and Buffet are the products of an economic system shaped around the premise that the private realm is morally, economically, and socially superior to the public one. What is held in common is second best. There is no social realm protected from market power.


I have just read David Marquand’s book Decline of the Public, which argues the opposite: that a vigorous and extensive public domain – encompassing citizenship, equity and service – is fundamental to a society in which citizens can flourish. Marquand shows how for 30 years Thatcher and Blair’s Governments have attacked anything that stands in the way of the market fundamentalists. He shows how the public domain has declined and calls for a counter-attack based on a restatement of the civic ideal.


I agree with Marquand that the public domain is the one of trust, and its values of equity and citizenship need to be protected from the marketisers.


There is a public interest – distinct from private interest. Commercial buccaneers, with their alien values, must be kept away from our schools and hospitals. The language of buyer and seller does not belong to the public domain. The few rich people I know are straight talkers who avow loyalty only to what they own. They think everyone’s like them.


This is borne out by the statistics. In the UK, the richest ten per cent of citizens give less than one per cent of their earnings to charity, whereas the poorest ten per cent give three per cent. Major donors account for less than two per cent of charities’ income. It is ordinary citizens who support the charitable sector. It belongs to us, and it is better that way. Those who see everything in terms of markets, undermine the service ethic at the heart of our sector. Helping people properly is complicated.


It requires patience and humility. Gates may learn, like George Soros before him, that accumulating wealth is the easiest part of this equation.


The next bit is trickier.