The Giving Pledge is an idea you can believe in. It’s the brainchild of Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, and represents what we believe is the pinnacle of capitalism, the end and purpose of which is the improvement of human life.
We are capitalists. We believe that capitalism is well-suited to the production of wealth and that wealth is an indispensable tool for improving human life.
In their bestselling book Sex At Dawn, Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá tell us that our hunter gatherer ancestors were much better sharers than we are. Sharing wasn’t just encouraged, it was mandatory. Hoarding or hiding food was considered deeply shameful and nearly unforgivable. They weren’t more evolved than we are; they just understood that their mutual survival depended on everyone’s adherence to this code. Sharing was simply the best way to distribute the inherent risks of life so that everyone would have a chance to survive.
Sharing is still the most practical approach for organizing human society. Intuitively we already know this, which is why when there’s a natural disaster or a terrorist attack — event for which we hold people blameless — we tend to redistribute our own resources so that other people can survive. Somewhere inside of us, we still remember that we are interconnected with everyone else and, increasingly, we’re understanding that our interconnectedness isn’t limited to those random occasions when we feel that someone deserves our help. We are moving beyond the myth of deservedness and starting to recognize that so much of what we are able to do for ourselves depends on accidents of birth and circumstance. People who are born into poverty, or who suffer major traumas in childhood, or at later points in life, or who are born with physical or mental health problems that impact their ability to effectively manage rugged individualist lives may not be able to fend for themselves — and any of us could suffer an illness or layoff that could compromise our ability to do the same. We are all vulnerable, which should cause us to re-examine whether the fend for yourself ethos is really such a good idea.
The present environmental crisis, which sooner or later will affect us all, is a case in point. It is the logical consequence of an approach to growth in which business and government thought only about “what I can get for me and mine” and failed to consider the long-term costs of shepherding as poorly as we have. We are being forced to rethink our approach, not to just the environmental crisis but to the many human crises that infest our world. The diseases of hunger, violence, and inadequate health care, education and economic opportunity can be eradicated if but we will recognize that we should be sharing the wealth. This is not to say that disparities of wealth are specious in and of themselves. We are differently talented and differently driven and society benefits when we reward talent, ingenuity and hard work, whether financially, or reputationally, or both, but at some point, wealth disparities cease to make sense. At some point, holding on to wealth starts to look like hoarding (not to mention that giving is a privilege all its own).
How much wealth is “too much” to keep all for yourself? I’m not sure, but The Giving Pledge draws the line it at a billion dollars or above. In asking people who have billions to give away 50% or more of their wealth, The Giving Pledge offers an anecdote to the human folly of hoarding or hiding your excess while other people starve (or die of treatable disease, or simply fail to realize their potential for lack of education or opportunity). These are solvable problems, and the purpose and end of capitalism must have something to do with that. Capitalism, and the Industrial Revolution in particular, have brought tremendous growth and the literal freedom from scarcity — though the way we’ve distributed the collective wealth makes it hard to tell. The next movement in human history, what I call The Interconnectedness Revolution, must pick up where the capitalist production of wealth leaves off. It must ensure that all this wealth we’ve amassed is toward some end that is higher than hoarding for me and mine.
If asking people to give up more than half their wealth — as Gates and Buffett have done — seems like asking too much, remember that The Giving Pledge is aimed at billionaires, and that a billion dollars is one thousand million dollars, more than any one person could spend in a lifetime, and more than their descendants will ever need. Consider that giving is tax deductible under U.S. law and any residual pangs of empathy you may be feeling will hopefully go away. Giving under The Giving Pledge is also voluntary (no arm twisting here), though my hope, and surely this is Gates’ and Buffet’s hope, is that sharing a portion of your excess once you’ve satisfied your own wants and needs will become the new normal.
There is a belief I ran across years ago that human evolution proceeds not along a straight line but along an upwardly moving spiral in which we circle back to where we’ve been before, this time weaving in our advances so that we enjoy the best of whom we’ve always been even as we evolve. Giving a portion of oour excess for the benefit of the other members of the human community, with whom we are interconnected, seems like just such an evolutionary turn.
To learn more about The Giving Pledge, visit their website or read their FAQs, re-printed in their entirety below:
WHO CAN PLEDGE?
The Giving Pledge is specifically focused on billionaires or those who would be billionaires if not for their giving.
The idea takes its inspiration from efforts in the past and at present that encourage and recognize givers of all financial means and backgrounds. We are inspired by the example set by millions of people who give generously (and often at great personal sacrifice) to make the world a better place.
Initially, the focus was on the wealthiest families and individuals in the United States. Since there have been enthusiastic responses to the Giving Pledge around the world, the pledge now includes people from a mix of countries around the world.
WHY A PLEDGE?
We hope that a group coming forward to be explicit about their intentions for giving the majority of their wealth away will help:
- Inspire conversations, discussions, and action, not just about how much but also for what purposes / to what end and
- Bring together those committed to this kind of giving to exchange knowledge on how to do this in the best possible way.
We live in an exciting time for philanthropy where innovative approaches and advances in technology have redefined what’s possible. Grassroots movements are proving every day how a single individual, regardless of wealth, can make a lasting impact on the lives of others.
WHY GO PUBLIC WITH A PLEDGE?
The goal is to talk about giving in an open way and create an atmosphere that can draw more people into philanthropy.
HOW DOES THE GIVING PLEDGE WORK?
Each family or individual who chooses to pledge will make this statement publicly, along with a statement explaining their decision to pledge.
At an annual event, those who take the pledge will come together to share ideas and learn from each other.
Throughout the year, there are opportunities for conversations that go deeper on the specific topics of interest to the group.
WHAT WILL PEOPLE PLEDGE TO?
The pledge does not involve pooling money or supporting a particular set of causes or organizations. The pledge asks only that the individual give the majority of their wealth to philanthropic causes or charitable organizations either before or after their death.
The pledge does not solicit support for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation or any other specific cause or organization. The pledge encourages signatories to find their own unique ways to give that inspire them personally and benefit society.
WILL THE GIVING PLEDGE GRANT MONEY TO ORGANIZATIONS?
Not directly. Each person who pledges makes an individual decision about which particular causes or organizations they wish to support.
HOW MUCH SHOULD PEOPLE GIVE?
Each family will decide that for themselves. The pledge asks for a commitment of a majority of their wealth. Many have and will continue to exceed it.
ONCE SOMEONE PLEDGES, HOW WILL YOU MAKE SURE THEY FOLLOW THROUGH?
The pledge is a moral commitment to give, not a legal contract.
HOW DID THE IDEA COME ABOUT?
The idea of the Giving Pledge came from the ideas and input generated in many great conversations that Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett had with other philanthropists in the U.S. and abroad.
HOW LONG WILL THE PLEDGE LAST?
Our hope is that the effort will continue for generations to come.
PHOTOGRAPHY via Unknown
PAULA PURYEAR is a Lawyer, Film & Television writer, HuffPoster and Founder of Revel In It Mag.