The August 11 edition of TIME Magazine featured philanthropist and Microsoft founder Bill Gates on the cover, and included a somewhat interesting article by the man himself on the topic of “creative capitalism”. As arguably one of the greatest individual beneficiaries of the capitalist system in the twentieth century, I suppose that we should not be surprised to hear that Gates believes that capitalism does have the potential to lift the third world out of poverty and into the marketplace. On the other hand, it may be surprising to some to hear that one of the most successful in-practice exponents of market domination ever believes that capitalism should be bent to meet the needs of the less unfortunate.
This passage from the article sums up Gates’ philosophy quite succinctly (p.28):
As I see it, there are two great forces of human nature: self-interest and caring for others. Capitalism harnesses self-interest in a helpful and sustainable way but only on behalf of those who can pay. Government aid and philanthropy channel our caring for those who can’t pay. And the world will make lasting progress on the big inequities that remain – problems like AIDS, poverty and education – only if governments and non-profits do their part by giving more aid and more effective aid. But the improvements will happen faster and last longer if we can channel market forces, including innovation that’s tailored to the needs of the poorest, to complement what governments and nonprofits do. We need a system that draws in innovators and businesses in a far better way than we do today.
In short, he is something of a modern-day socialist. Gates cites C.K. Prahalad’s work The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid (which sounds like an intriguing read!) in formulating his thoughts in the article, which revolve around the fact that there are many markets all over the world that the free market system has essentially looked over. Effective markets have not arrived in some impoverished developed countries, and the blame for this can clearly not just be laid at the feet of the despots who lead some or perhaps many of these places. Free-ish markets have failed to deliver wealth to the world’s poor over the last few decades, and clearly need more of a push from the public and non-government sectors.
It is deeply ironic that despite the fact that Gates is almost universally maligned today as the former leader of the world’s least cool software company, the work he has done in his industry and is now involving himself in is quite frankly invaluable to the world at large.
ELSEWHERE: There’s a video featuring Gates’ thoughts on the topic here.