There’s a very provocative article on the New York Times website that criticizes Steve Jobs for his supposed lack of charitable giving.
Surprisingly, there is one thing that Mr. Jobs is not, at least not yet: a prominent philanthropist. Despite accumulating an estimated $8.3 billion fortune through his holdings in Apple and a 7.4 percent stake in Disney (through the sale of Pixar), there is no public record of Mr. Jobs giving money to charity. He is not a member of the Giving Pledge, the organization founded by Warren E. Buffett and Bill Gates to persuade the nation’s wealthiest families to pledge to give away at least half their fortunes. (He declined to participate, according to people briefed on the matter.) Nor is there a hospital wing or an academic building with his name on it. …the lack of public philanthropy by Mr. Jobs — long whispered about, but rarely said aloud — raises some important questions about the way the public views business and business people at a time when some “millionaires and billionaires” are criticized for not giving back enough… In 2006, in a scathing column in Wired, Leander Kahney, author of “Inside Steve’s Brain,” wrote: “Yes, he has great charisma and his presentations are good theater. But his absence from public discourse makes him a cipher. People project their values onto him, and he skates away from the responsibilities that come with great wealth and power.”
But why, to address Leander Kahney’s criticism, should we assume that Mr. Jobs has done nothing for the poor? He’s built a $360 billion company. That presumably means at least $352 billion of wealth in the hands of people other than himself. And that doesn’t even begin to count how consumers have benefited from his products, the jobs he has created, and the indirect positive impact of his company on suppliers and retailers.
To give credit where credit is due, the article does present this counter-argument. It reports that Mr. Jobs told friends, “that he could do more good focusing his energy on continuing to expand Apple than on philanthropy.”
This is a critical point. Do we want highly talented entrepreneurs and investors dropping out of the private sector and giving their money away after they’ve reached a certain point, say $5 billion. Or do we want them to focus on creating more wealth and prosperity?
Interestingly, Warren Buffett used to understand this point (before he started arguing that politicians could more effectively spend his money). And Carlos Slim Helu still does.
Mr. Jobs, 56 years old, is not alone in his single-minded focus on work over philanthropy. It wasn’t until Mr. Buffett turned 75 that he turned his attention to charity, saying that he was better off spending his time allocating capital at Berkshire Hathaway — where he believed he could create even greater wealth to give away — than he would ever be at devoting his energies toward running a foundation. And last year, Carlos Slim Helú, the Mexican telecommunications billionaire, defended his lack of charity and his refusal to sign the Giving Pledge. “What we need to do as businessmen is to help to solve the problems, the social problems,” he said in an interview on CNBC. “To fight poverty, but not by charity.”
None of this is to say that charitable giving is wrong. I’m proud to say that my employer, the Cato Institute, refuses to accept money from government. This means we are completely dependent of private philanthropy.
But those of us who work at Cato understand that creating wealth – maximizing the size of the economic pie – is the most important priority. And if the pie is big, generous people then have more ability to make contributions to worthy causes such as school choice scholarship funds, the Salvation Army, or (ahem) America’s best think tank.