The announcement, on Tuesday, by Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, that, during their lifetimes, they will donate to philanthropic causes roughly ninety-nine per cent of their Facebook stock, which is currently valued at close to forty-five billion dollars, has already prompted a lot of comment, much of it positive. That is understandable. The fact that Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and a number of other billionaires are pledging their fortunes to charity rather than seeking to pass them down to their descendants is already having an impact.
Last year, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which was founded in 2000, dispensed almost four billion dollars in grants. A big slug of this money went toward fighting diseases like H.I.V., malaria, polio, and tuberculosis, which kill millions of people in poor countries. Zuckerberg and Chan have also already donated hundreds of millions of dollars to various causes, including eradicating the Ebola virus. In their latest announcement, which they presented as an open letter to their newborn daughter, on Zuckerberg’s Facebook page, they said that the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the new philanthropic organization that they are setting up, would focus on “advancing human potential and promoting equality.”
It’s not just the size of the donations that the wealthy are making that demands attention, though. Charitable giving on this scale makes modern capitalism, with all of its inequalities and injustices, seem somewhat more defensible. Having created hugely successful companies that have generated almost unimaginable wealth, Zuckerberg, Gates, and Buffett are sending a powerful message to Wall Street hedge-fund managers, Russian oligarchs, European industrialists, Arab oil sheiks, and anybody else who has accumulated a vast fortune: “From those to whom much is given, much is expected."