Issues & Insights
Moorehouse College

Mr. Smith Doesn’t Go to Washington to Give Back

Robert F. Smith’s tremendous act of generosity astounded the nation and the world. Media outlets across the globe covered his commencement address to Morehouse College’s class of 2019 in which he announced that he will donate tens of millions of dollars to pay the student loan debts of 400 people, most of whom he likely doesn’t even know. While the dollar amount is, of course, impressive, what really makes this story exceptional is that it is an act of free will.

The fact that this donation was voluntary and deliberate is important to recognize as our country is increasingly receptive to socialist ideas. According to a new Gallup poll, four in 10 Americans embrace some form of socialism, a system in which the population is taxed heavily so that government can manage the distribution of earnings. But such a system not only denies people like Mr. Smith the opportunity to choose to be generous, it denies donors — big and small—the right to choose to whom or what their hard-earned money should go. And, to hold the recipients accountable.

Nevertheless, calls for higher taxes and more government-funded programs are only increasing. And, it’s not just the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates calling for bigger government. Billionaires Howard Schultz and Bill Gates have made headlines this year for lamenting that they are unable to pay more taxes than they already do given their enormous incomes. Both have paid eye-popping sums: Gates has contributed more than $10 billion! Their sense of gratitude is admirable, but both men are wrong in seeing the government as the best option to steward the money they’ve earned.

Schultz and Gates’ success does come with a responsibility to share their gifts with those less fortunate, but generosity should be an act of free will, both in terms of the sum and the recipient.

A key feature of the heartwarming Morehouse College story is that Mr. Smith chose to give to a cause in which he believes. Morehouse College is an all black liberal arts college for men with the mission to “develop men with disciplined minds who will lead lives of leadership and service.” Morehouse is clearly unique among our nation’s other higher education institutions and Mr. Smith sees it as valuable and worth supporting. In a society where individuals steward their own resources rather than the government, donors can channel their money to causes they deem worthy. That’s what Mr. Smith did — he put his money where his mouth is and in doing so, set an example for the rest of us.

It’s puzzling that Schultz and Gates feel guilty about not giving more to the government. If they want to use their fortune to change the world, paying taxes to the government to spend as it sees fit is not the only option. In fact, given Schultz and Gates’ success in building staggeringly profitable and effective companies, it’s likely that they would do a better job constructing the structures and teams that deliver quality social services than the government. Despite record-breaking tax revenues, our federal government has racked up more than $22 trillion in debt with disasters like the Veterans Health Administration scandal and the California high-speed rail project to show for it.

For anyone itching to give their money to help people, the options are abundant.

Donating to charities like the Little Sisters of the Poor, or picking another cause that align with the donor’s values, is certainly a more direct and effective way to have a positive impact on the world. And, when donors have control over their donations, they can hold recipients accountable for misuse or waste. The result is better charity that more directly reflects society’s values.

Bill Gates’ comment “nobody deserves to be this rich” is a striking example of humility. Whether he deserves it or not is irrelevant. Forfeiting honest riches to the government to steward falls short of taking on that responsibility and squanders the opportunity to have a real impact.

Mr. Smith showed us how to take on that responsibility. After announcing his gift to a flabbergasted audience, he urged the class of 2019 to pay it forward “because we are enough to take care of our own community … we will show it to each other through our actions, and through our words and through our deeds.”

Mr. Smith certainly showed the world that he cares and what he values — through his actions, his words and his deeds. And, no one made him do it. That’s true charity and a beautiful example for how we should use our free will.

Christine A. Goss is President of Pixton Public Relations, Inc.

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  • Bill Gates, etc. are not “donating” to the government out of a sense of gratitude and his “nobody deserves…” is not humility – but unearned guilt. And the rich have no responsivity to “share their gifts”; those whose wealth was earned by their hard work and use of their talents deserve every penny they earn – pennies and talent that are by no means “gifts.” They have by their hard work already made life incalculably better for everyone – there is no responsibility for them to further “share.” If they wish to do so, fine; but their donation will likely not create benefits greater than their use of their talents already has.

  • I agree about the direction of this piece, however the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is a vehicle that should be mentioned as perhaps the largest private foundation addressing issues near and dear to the Gates. I am sure there were some tax benefits as well in its establishment.

  • I am tired of this concept of giving “back”. None of the people who amassed wealth did so by robbing people. They offered a product that people wanted and could afford. Every philanthropist gave to the causes they espoused as was their right.

  • Wonderful as I doubt that very many of them would themselves bother to pay off any of their debt!

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