It was an announcement only an oracle could have foreseen: Warren Buffett, the "oracle of Omaha," and second-richest man in the world, proclaimed in June that he would donate $31 billion to the individual who might seem to need it least: Bill Gates, the wealthiest man on earth.
In fact, the gift will be made to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the eponymous billionaires' fund to fight poverty and disease and improve education worldwide. Over the last decade, the foundation has given away over $10 billion in pursuit of its causes, from infant vaccination ($750 million) to the United Negro College Fund ($1 billion). Its work even landed Bill and Melinda Gates on the cover of Time in 2005, when they were named "Persons of the Year" along with Irish rocker Bono. Now Buffett joins their ranks as one of the world's preeminent philanthropists.
But while the magnitude of these merging philanthropic gifts may be unprecedented, the interest of the mega-rich in putting their treasure troves to charitable use is an old game, one that has been variably praised and critically deconstructed over the last century in the pages of The Atlantic.
In the earliest decades of the twentieth century, when infamous robber barons were attempting to cleanse their tarnished images through showy displays of benevolence, some commentators looked on with skepticism. Sociologist Edward Alsworth Ross was one such cynic. "Infamous businesses have sought to insure tolerance for their nefarious operations by giving heavily and conspicuously to charities with a strong sentimental appeal," he wrote in "Philanthropy With Strings" (September 1914).
Quite a few prominent businesses had been exposed at the time for fraud, price-fixing, worker exploitation, and other corporate sins. To Ross's surprise, however, one effect of all this bad publicity was an increase in the flow of charitable giving:
The resort to philanthropy as a means of propitiation becomes more general as the public becomes more and more critical of the ways of business. Eight or nine years ago it was often predicted that 'muck-raking' would so wound, exasperate, and alienate the rich that the fountains of benevolence would dry up. Exactly the opposite has occurred. Exposure has had a wonderful effect in loosening the purse-strings of the exposed and the exposable.
In "Philanthropic Doubts" (September 1921), Cornelia J. Cannon, a best-selling novelist and frequent social commentator, characterized the attitude of most charities as paternalistic and misguided in their failure to take into account the perspectives of those they sought to help:
Here is the Achilles heel of the philanthropic movement. In the soul of the philanthropist stirs a passion for betterment, a real desire that life shall be more endurable for us all. But in the method he employs he ignores participation by the 'others.' He uses the ways of an aristocracy instead of those native to a democracy.
Moreover, the wealthy, she suggested, take up charitable activities not so much as a means of genuinely improving the world but as another amusing diversion for themselves. "Rich Americans," she wrote, "have 'gone in' for philanthropy as the English gentleman goes in for sport. Each man has adopted his pet charity, has preyed upon his friends for help, and been preyed upon in turn."
And while deep-pocketed Americans happily—and ostentatiously—funded their own pet projects, Cannon pointed out that most were resistant to contributing their share toward those government projects designed to benefit the public good.
The typical lover of his kind will pour out money for the starving Chinese though he may hesitate to contribute to campaign expenses for public-school associations. The novice can catch the thrill of teaching folk-dancing to the tenement-house child or distributing bread tickets to the poor; but an offer to pay the expenses of a board of health 'cleanup campaign' requires imagination of a different order.
In 1935, as the Depression devastated millions of Americans, it seemed that Cannon's vision for the proper approach to social betterment was finally being realized: high taxes and immense government relief programs were the order of the day. Responding to this dramatic change, Abraham Flexner, an educator and the founder of the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study, wrote "Private Fortune and the Public Future," reminding readers that private philanthropy had a long and important legacy.
We happen to be living in an era when, in consequence of human gullibility and fallibility, the world has been overtaken by panic and distress such as private initiative alone cannot cope with ... but at this very moment when the government is doing all that it can humanely do in these various directions it behooves us to remember the essence of our tradition of private effort and benefaction.
Flexner implored Americans not to let the government suck the rich dry:
The institutions which are indispensable to higher education and philanthropy rely largely on the benefactions of private individuals; if these are stripped of the results of honest accumulations by taxation, death duties, inheritance taxes, and so forth, where are Harvard and Yale and Princeton to procure the funds needed for their development?
Private institutions such as universities, hospitals, and museums, he emphasized, play a vital role in bolstering quality of life, and, he wrote, they "carry on more economically and more effectively than similar institutions which are managed by public authorities."
And what of the mind of the philanthropist himself? In 1956, Helena Bullock, the wife of Harvard economics professor Charles J. Bullock, profiled the ultra-rich banker and philanthropist George F. Baker, for whom her husband's professorship was named. When her husband's position first became endowed by Mr. Baker, Helena reached out to him with a letter of thanks. Soon he became a family friend. In "Too Rich for Comfort," Bullock recalled some fond anecdotes.