The Egyptian driver of a London minicab said almost nothing during our journey but dropped me off at my destination with the words ‘What do you think of the condition of the world at the moment?’ He didn’t think well of it himself, he added: and I could not but agree. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so uneasy, not even during the Cuban missile crisis. The threats to international order and stability are now so varied and so amorphous that it is difficult to know how they are to be confronted, and even more difficult to predict when or where the next horror will erupt.
But that, I suppose, gives us all the more need to be hopeful and to look on the bright side of life. Just before Christmas, a commission chaired by Baroness Butler-Sloss reported that Britain was no longer a Christian country and should stop behaving as if it was. But to attend Christmas church services was to be reminded that the Christian message of peace, love and goodwill, which continues to inspire even those without faith, is founded on hope and is still our strongest bulwark against the barbarism of Isis.
And then there was the decision of 31-year-old Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, and his wife, Priscilla Chan, to give 99 per cent of their shares in the company, currently valued at $45 billion, towards making the world a better, healthier and more equal place. They were much mocked for this and accused of seeking to rebrand the pursuit of their own selfish interests as philanthropy. One can see why. Such gestures by the immensely rich always arouse suspicion, especially when they are accompanied by great emphasis on ‘promoting equality’. Warren Buffett was similarly attacked a few years ago when he committed $30 billion to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation ‘to reduce inequities and improve lives around the world’.
But there’s no getting around it. Both Zuckerberg and Buffett are philanthropists, and, together with Bill Gates, philanthropists on an enormous scale. They deserve applause, whatever their motives may be. And who’s to say that their motives are bad? It is traditional among those who have grown rich in America to feel they should ‘give something back’ to the people from whom their riches come. It was Andrew Carnegie who set the tone for his successors when he said that ‘huge fortunes that flow in large part from society should in large part be returned to society’.
British billionaires tend to be less generous. They are too disconnected from the rest of society and generally out of sympathy with it. They also like to take all the credit for their own success and are reluctant to admit that luck played any part in it. Buffett, on the other hand, has said that he got rich not ‘because of any special virtues of mine or even because of hard work, but simply because I was born with the right skills in the right place at the right time’.
The Zuckerbergs announced their decision to divest themselves of their fortune in an open letter to their newborn daughter Max, who they said they wanted to grow up in a world ‘better than ours today’. And even this world, they said, was pretty good. ‘While headlines often focus on what’s wrong, in many ways the world is getting better,’ they wrote. ‘Health is improving. Poverty is shrinking. Knowledge is growing. People are connecting. Technological progress in every field means your life should be dramatically better than ours today.’
But, of course, much more needed doing: ‘Our hopes for your generation focus on two ideas: advancing human potential and promoting equality.’ And to do this they proposed investing in vast programmes to cure disease, to eliminate poverty and hunger, to protect the environment, and to ‘truly empower everyone — women, children, underrepresented minorities, immigrants, and the unconnected’.
It is not surprising that the creator of Facebook should put particular faith in the potential of the internet. It was so important, he said, that ‘for every ten people who gain internet access, about one person is lifted out of poverty and about one new job is created. Yet still more than half of the world’s population — more than four billion people — don’t have access to the internet’.
No matter that much of this may be pie in the sky. No matter that the internet may not be the panacea that Zuckerberg thinks it is. His spirit of optimism, backed by the biggest financial commitment anyone has ever made, is still a powerful impetus to good cheer as a new year begins.
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