More Than Money
Issue #31

The Everyday Ethics of Wealth

Table of Contents

“To Whom Much Is Given”

An Interview with William H. Gates, Sr.
Interviewed by Chuck Collins

Collins: Can individuals legitimately claim that they created their own wealth?

Gates, Sr.: It is important to affirm and celebrate the role of the individual in the creation of wealth. One significant reason that some people accumulate great wealth is through their extra effort, creativity, faithfulness and sacrifice. Individuals do make a difference—sometimes the difference between success and failure.

Yet it is equally important to acknowledge the role of a wide variety of influential factors, such as luck, privilege, other people’s efforts, and society’s investment in the creation of individual wealth. Despite our individual gifts, few things we do are ours alone. Ideas or products do not emerge in an historical vacuum— and other people’s input, labors, feedback, and suggestions are always involved. Unfortunately, the contribution of the team, the helper, the editor, and the laborer are often undervalued in measuring individual wealth and achievement. How we think about this question is important because it goes to the heart of how we think about ourselves, as individuals and as a society.

Collins: You have written in Wealth and Our Commonwealth about how society contributes to wealth creation. What do you mean by that?

Gates, Sr.: Societal investment refers to all that society does to create and maintain the fertile soil in which some individuals accumulate great wealth. In the United States this investment is substantial and often invisible, but it includes a regulated marketplace, stable property laws, consumer protection laws, government- sponsored research, subsidized education, transportation, and other public systems, such as utilities and communications infrastructures.

There are also many other components of the social framework that enable great wealth to be built in the United States, such as a patent system, enforceable contracts, open courts, property ownership records, protection against crime, and external threats. Even the stock market is a form of society-created wealth, providing liquidity to enterprises. When faith in the system is shaken, as in the last year, it is clear what happens to individual wealth.

Collins: What are the implications of this for our actions in the world?

Gates, Sr.: In my opinion, the main implication is that we must recognize that society has a legitimate claim upon the wealth of the wealthy. This is not simply a matter of charitable giving, of “giving back” to institutions that have made a difference to us, such as schools, arts institutions, et cetera. It is also an obligation to pay taxes—to pay for the public institutions that foster equality of opportunity and to give others the opportunities that we’ve had. I think it means we should have a progressive inheritance tax or estate tax.

William H. Gates, Sr. is chairman of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle ( www.gatesfoundation.org). He is co-author, with Chuck Collins, of the forthcoming book, Wealth and Our Commonwealth: Why America Should Tax Accumulated Fortunes (Beacon Press, 2003).

Chuck Collins is the co-founder and program director of United for a Fair Economy (www.faireconomy.org) and Responsible Wealth (www.responsiblewealth.org) . He is co-author, with William H. Gates, Sr., of the forthcoming book, Wealth and Our Commonwealth: Why America Should Tax Accumulated Fortunes (Beacon Press, 2003).


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