Is It Okay to Make a Fortune If You Give it All Away?

Mike Bloomberg, the 16th richest human in the world, is no longer the mayor of NYC. He is merely a private citizen who made $6 billion last year. He says he wants to give his fortune away before he dies. Is that enough to make him good?

I do not mean to ask this in a coy way. I mean to ask, in all seriousness: If a man amasses a $33 billion fortune in the cutthroat world of finance, and then gives it all away to various charitable causes by the time of his death, was it all, on balance, good for the world?

This is not a simple question. A New York Times profile yesterday shows Bloomberg jetting around the globe to various do-gooder projects and vowing to ramp up his (so far moderate relative to other major billionaire philanthropists) charity giving so that he can "bounce the check to the undertaker." It's an admirable goal. But the disposal of an enormous fortune must be weighed against the accumulation of that fortune. "Behind every fortune lies a great crime," goes the Balzac quote that must be inserted here, by law. Is Mike Bloomberg a prototypical example of "The Good Rich?" Or just another plutocrat desperately trying to cleanse his conscience?

For the sake of making this argument a tiny bit easier to handle, let's stipulate the following points (it is possible to disagree with these points but those are separate arguments, okay): 1) Mike Bloomberg's fortune, which he made in both investment banking and with his business news and financial information company, was made fully legally; 2) Mike Bloomberg's motives in giving away his money are pure; and 3) The causes that Mike Bloomberg plans to give all of his money to (public health, gun control, and many assorted others) are good causes that do indeed help humanity and make the world a better place. Taking these points for granted, there is an easy answer to the question of Bloomberg's moral worth: yes, he is good. Yes, the overall value of his work in this world is positive. Look at all of the causes he is supporting. Look at the lives that will be saved by his donations. Yes, it is, on balance, good.

However! While there is no doubt that $33 billion in (theoretical) charity donations will do a lot of good, we must also reckon with Mike Bloomberg's role in a world that allows one man to accumulate $33 billion. A system in which a single man—nice man, mean man, short man, tall man, or otherwise—can accumulate, in his own bank account and no one else's, a sum of $33 billion, is a bad system. The fact that Mike Bloomberg's business career could allow him to accrue $33 billion is prima facie evidence that life is unfair, that America is home to an absurd economic system that is all too ready to countenance starvation in the midst of plenty, and that our nation's platitudes towards economic equality are jokes. It is completely appropriate to think about all of the things that happened over the course of several decades that allowed Mike Bloomberg to grow this rich, and to wonder where else that wealth might have gone under a more fair system—of education, of taxation, of general social and economic opportunity. One does not need to consider Mike Bloomberg the human some sort of immoral monster in order to ask reasonable questions about the massive moral implications of a world in which Mike Bloomberg could gather for himself enough wealth to, for example, double the income of every man, woman, and child in the Central African Republic for the next decade. Even if the fortune is legal, its implications are sickening.

Unfortunately, I have no idea how to actually calculate the ethical impacts of accumulating a vast fortune vs. giving one away. Do you? If so, please share in the discussion section below. A good methodology would be very useful. We don't want to worship the wrong heroes.

[Photo: AP]