In the corner of one of the Microsoft cafeterias, you can find a chunk of the dismantled Berlin Wall. And, for a time, this seemed like an appropriate home for this relic of the twentieth century. During the 1990s, it truly felt as if communism had given way to the software behemoth, or at least the brand of capitalism that Microsoft had come to represent. The casual placement of such a potent symbol of oppression, standing in the shadow of the gamers and marketers in the sushi line, struck the triumphalist note of the zeitgeist.
But that optimism has long since faded. And Bill Gates has traveled one of the more interesting ideological journeys of our times. Over the past decades, he has gone from poster child of capitalism to critic of it. Last week, he spoke about the limits of the marketplace at the Davos Economic Forum, where the elite gathers annually for deep chintugging and self-congratulating: "We have to find a way to make the aspects of capitalism that serve wealthier people serve poorer people as well." Through his philanthropic ventures in Africa, he claims to have observed the limits of the market, where advances in health and education never wend their way to the downtrodden. According to The Wall Street Journal, he has begun reading deep into Adam Smith's oeuvre: and not just The Wealth of Nations, but also The Theory of Moral Sentiments.
It's not surprising that his criticism of the market--and his call for morality to take its place alongside profit in our calculus--has earned him the derision of certain conservatives. Writing on the National Review website, Larry Kudlow sniveled, "So I just have to smile when billionaires like Bill Gates and George Soros turn cold shoulders to the blessings capitalism bestows. ... Look fellas, the command-and-control, state-run economics experiment was tried. It was called the Soviet Union. If you hadn't noticed, it was a miserable failure." Of course, Kudlow's criticisms are risible. Gates doesn't want socialism and isn't calling for the nationalization of industry. He wants businesses to devote more of their resources to spreading their products and technologies to the poor. "Such a system would have a twin mission: making profits and also improving lives for those who don't fully benefit from market forces," he said.
In fact, it's precisely at this point in Gates's logic that we begin to have problems. He deserves an ovation for his philanthropy. But there are some problems that are beyond even the reach of a $38-billion foundation. And, while we admire the courage of his criticism of the marketplace, his remedy (calling on business to lend a hand to the poor) hardly seems up to the task. There are grave problems in the world that only government can alleviate, because only government has the scale and reach to help remedy them. And, while business can act on behalf of the common good, it will almost always act in its own self- interest--a tendency that often places it on a collision course with morality. In other words, the state can never provide a sufficient solution, but smart, effective government is a necessity.
That's not to diminish his accomplishment. Gates has done a noble thing, breaking with the hardened consensus of the business elite. We simply await the completion of his journey.
By The Editors