The Gospel According to Gates

Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, the richest and second richest person in America, and perhaps the world, are often described as admirers of Andrew Carnegie’s famous 1889 essay “The Gospel of Wealth.” Carnegie’s treatise, an American classic, provides a moral justification for the concentration of wealth that capitalism tends to create by arguing that immense wealth leads to well-spent charitable contributions and support of the arts and sciences. In short, Carnegie thought that great personal wealth leads to great civilizations.

”The Gospel of Wealth” is based on the premise that business competition results in “survival of the fittest” – the fittest being those endowed with the most “talent for organization.” Carnegie argued that those who thrive in business and acquire huge personal fortunes are better at judging how the world really works, and thus are better qualified to judge where resources should be directed. Successful people, according to Carnegie, should retire from business while they still retain those talents and devote their remaining years to spending their fortunes on philanthropy.

Carnegie also advocated an inheritance tax as an incentive, arguing that it would “induce the rich man to attend to the administration of wealth during his life.” Encouraging the rich to spend their fortunes on good causes while still alive, Carnegie maintained, is far better than leaving the disposition of their wealth to the care of their (probably untalented) children.

Last month, Bill Gates announced that he will do what Carnegie recommended: in two years, he will change his priorities so that he can work full time for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which he and his wife founded. Even earlier than Carnegie, who quit at 65, Gates will devote his life to spending his huge fortune on philanthropy.